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The Bloody Stare of Mars

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I.

Hermione Granger looked steadily at her employer – no, as of forty-five seconds ago, her former employer – and asked, "May I know the reason for my dismissal?" Her voice didn't crack. She was proud of that.

Andraste Snowquill, the witch who ran the potions lab, wouldn't look Hermione in the eye. "So many new regulations," she said absently, pretending to arrange a few pieces of parchment on her shining, well-ordered desk. "It's holding up our distribution, and that cuts into profits, and part-time employees such as yourself are paid out of those profits – temporary, I'm sure, but you know how things are."

"Yes," Hermione said. "I know how things are."

She curled her hands into fists, felt her bitten-down fingernails against her palms. This job – menial and tiresome and low-paying as it had been – had at least provided enough money for her to keep up the rent on her wretched attic flat. She'd even been saving for a new robe. The one she wore now was the best she had left, and even it was fraying at the sleeves.

Now that money would have to go for food, until Hermione got a new job. If she could get a new job. The new laws didn't explicitly forbid wizards and witches to employ Mudbloods, but Hermione suspected that was only a matter of time.

What will I do then? she thought. Oh, God, what will I do now?

Snowquill folded her hands – well-manicured and soft – on the desk. "They'll give you a form in the front office; take that to Gringotts and they'll give you a week's severance."

When she was a young girl, full of righteous indignation at the troubles of house-elves, Hermione had been quick to speak up. She had liked to argue, to debate, to try and show those around her the way things should be. Now, she understood quite well that nobody cared about the way things should be, not any longer. It wouldn't make any difference, none at all.

Nothing could, now that Lord Voldemort ruled, and Harry was dead.

"We're done, Miss Granger," Snowquill said.

"I suppose we are done," Hermione replied. "YOU'RE done looking down your nose at me, giving me twice the work to do in half the time and giving me instructions so ignorant that you don't even bother to hide the fact that you can't tell mandragora from murtlap. I'M done working at slave labor for sub-slave pay, letting all of you talk down to me to make yourselves feel superior, and enduring the unending frustration of always, always being the only one in the room who isn't a complete and utter bitch."

Sometimes, speaking up had to be its own reward.

**

None of the other pestle-grinders looked up as Hermione gathered up her cloak and bag from the table that had been hers. One of them – Orla Quirke, a girl she'd known slightly at school – was obviously crying, her shoulders shaking as she hunched over her work, but even she said nothing.

Lucky I'm not looking for sympathy, Hermione thought, taking up the severance slip, a pink bit of paper that tsk-tsked at her gently. She took in a deep breath of cool as she stumbled out into the street, throwing off the scent of cinnabar and toad's blood, hoping to steady herself.

The February sun was pale through a skein of clouds; it was a few degrees too warm to snow, but Hermione felt certain it would rain again that night. Puddles lined the cobblestone streets, and she thought despairingly of the cracked pane in her skylight. She'd used repairing spells on it a dozen times, but it seemed to have been weakened through years of being spelled by similarly desperate tenants.

To hell with it, Hermione thought. Her bravado was quickly fading into a kind of exhaustion that went far beyond the physical. She was sick of counting her problems and trying to think of solutions. She was sick of every aspect of her life, and the fact that her sole consolation was that it wasn't yet as bad as it was likely to get. Ghastly, she thought, to be bitter at 21.

But didn't she have reason? She'd spent her adolescence fighting a war that ought to have been left to adults, only to see them lose. She'd cherished Harry as her best friend and Ron as her lover –

-oh, Ron–

-only to outlive them both. She'd been the most talented witch of her year at Hogwarts, only to find herself uneducable and unemployable due to laws meant to punish Mudbloods for the crime of having been born.

Hermione shook her head, trying to cast off the shroud of self-pity that had settled over her. You could have it worse, she reminded herself fiercely. You could be a Muggle, trapped under Voldemort's rule with no status, no power, no hope of ever changing your fate and, probably, still no idea exactly how or why the world changed. You could be like poor Neville Longbottom, rotting in Azkaban for being a footnote to a prophecy that already came true in the worst possible way. You could be like Professor Dumbledore or Kingsley Shacklebolt or Cho Chang or any of those thousands of others who died in the Battle of Samhain. What would they give, for one of your days?

But this litany, which usually had a jolting effect on her, was stale and powerless in her mind. Hermione had worn it thin through repetition. At that moment, the thought of being dead had lost its terror. Harry had always sworn that there was another country past the living one – she could find Harry there, and all the others she'd lost, and Ron, her own Ron. If she could be with him again, have the knowledge of him for even a minute –

"Hermione!" Startled at the sound of her name, Hermione whirled around; she steadied herself when she saw who had spoken.

"Luna," she said evenly. Quickly she folded up the severance slip, ignoring its protests; Hermione didn't think she was strong enough to handle pity at the moment. "Well. Haven't seen you in a few months."

"Important business," Luna said meaningfully. She wore black from top to bottom, including her trenchcoat and a beret that tilted on her head; she looked like a secret-agent doll, Hermione thought with scorn. Then again, perhaps it worked for her: Nobody who saw her over-the-top getup would ever believe that Luna really ran messages through the underground, which she did. Pity the messages were never worth listening to. Luna shrugged toward a nearby newsstand. "Let's pretend to shop."

Marvelous. More useless secrets. But Hermione moved to the newsstand window to stand by Luna's side nevertheless. Any time spent thinking about anything besides her own plight had to count for something. As the wind blew more strongly, she tucked the ends of her scarf – one she'd knitted herself, far too long ago – into the collar of her outer robe. "What's the word?"

"The word is good," Luna said vaguely. She generally led into her picayune revelations with quite a lot of doubletalk.

Hermione stared stonily at the newsstand. On one magazine cover, a witch ran a tape measure around her waist and repeatedly marveled at the slim results. On another, beneath the headline "Band Breakup?" the Weird Sisters were scuffling with each other; the drummer appeared to have the lead singer's nose in a twist. A newspaper showed Voldemort himself, smiling evilly, staring directly at Hermione. "That's good to hear, Luna," she said automatically.

"There's someone you'll want to see," Luna said.

This was slightly more concrete than most of Luna's messages; against her will, Hermione felt a faint tickle of curiosity. "Who's that? Another messenger?"

Luna shook her head; she didn't look directly at Hermione, but in the newsstand window, Hermione could see a reflected smile. "Remus Lupin's in Tartrosgate."

Hermione covered her mouth with her hand to keep from crying out the name. Remus Lupin! Alive! Then her brain absorbed the rest of the message, and her heart plunged – in Tartrosgate? Oh, but it was better than him being dead. Wasn't it? Her mind whirling, she whispered, "How did you hear?"

"Can't say. Firenze is with him."

This news affected Hermione less – she'd only met Professor Firenze on a handful of occasions – but it still gladdened her. "Thank God," she said shakily. "Thank God."

Luna risked a sideways glance then. "Bet you're glad to see me now."

"I'm sorry." Hermione knew her cheeks were flushing, but it was excitement rather than shame. "I know I was rude to you at first. But, you see – I just got sacked. Again."

Luna bit her lip. "I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I know it must be hard."

Yes, I bet you know, Hermione thought, looking at the gleaming black trenchcoat and wondering how many months of her rent its price would have covered. But she said only, "Thank you for telling me about Professor Lupin. I'll – I'll go see him soon."

"I'd go too, if I could risk it," Luna said. She held up one fist and whispered, "For Neville!"

That stupid revolutionary salute. Hermione didn't return it, but she forced herself to smile as Luna slinked away. For safety's sake, Hermione lingered a while at the newsstand window; she watched a magazine cover at the very top of the rack, where a scantily clad witch danced around a pole and tossed her hair.

Remus Lupin is alive, Hermione thought. Against the darkness of all the deaths she'd witnessed or known, that fact was such a faint light – and yet it shone brightly inside her. It would be so good to see someone from the old days; Hermione thought of Luna and amended that to someone SANE from the old days. Though, of course, if her own psyche had become so strained, what must Lupin's be like, after being jailed within Tartrosgate?

But he must be sane, or else he couldn't have thought to get a message out. However she found him, Hermione knew she'd go see him as long as she could -- it would be worth it, to remember.

**

The skylight had cracked again.

Hermione lifted her wand up and said, "Reparo!" but without much hope. Above her, she could see the glass sluggishly knitting together; the flaw in the glass remained visible, and she had a feeling the pressure of a rainstorm would break it again.

Honestly, she thought, it would be better to just call a Muggle repairman, actually replace the glass, sometimes the wizarding world doesn't use the most basic logic -

Then again, where would she find such a person? The Muggle economies had collapsed after Voldemort's takeover; she'd read the Guardian as long as it continued printing and followed the news as best she could. Now that the world had essentially been plunged back into a sort of medievalism, where only magic provided the luxuries of modernity, most Muggles were reduced to struggling for their own survival -- and, of course, to pay Voldemort's tithes and tributes.

Sometimes, when it didn't seem too horrible to put into words, Hermione was glad her parents hadn't lived to see this.

She bustled about and got a fire started; one of the few good things about this flat was that it was small enough to warm up quickly. Next, she put an antitheft charm on one of the drawers in the rickety dresser, then slipped in the gold she'd collected from Gringotts. It was her severance and her savings, every galleon, sickle and knut she had in the world. (The goblin who'd helped her at Gringotts had made some nasty insinuations about freezing Mudblood accounts. Better safe than sorry.) Her gold didn't make a very large pile.

Hermione resisted the urge to count it; instead, she spread out the Daily Prophet she'd fished from a trash bin and settled down on what she euphemistically called the chaise-longue. (When she added a couple more pillows, she called it the sofa. At night, she removed all but one pillow and faced the fact that it was just the bed.)

New job, she thought resolutely. I'll find something. I know what I'm doing, and there must be someone who won't care that I'm a Mudblood, or remember that I was connected to Harry –

She caught herself, sucked in a quick breath. Had she really just called her friendship with Harry a handicap?

I won't think of it that way, she told herself. I won't.

From her bedside table, two old framed photographs reflected a summer sunlight that seemed too brilliant to ever have been real. In one of them, she and Harry and Ron and Ginny and Dean and Lavender all jostled for room in the frame, making rabbit ears behind each other's heads, giggling madly. Harry, 16 years old, was ruffling Ginny's hair despite her protests; Hermione could see herself scolding them to be still and pose for the portrait. As usual, she thought, I entirely missed the point.

In the other photograph, taken perhaps a year later, Ron hugged her in the shade of one of the old trees next to the Burrow. The wind ruffled their hair, and Hermione's head rested against his chest. Every now and then, Ron would kiss her forehead, and Hermione would snuggle closer to him. They didn't even seem to realize they were in a picture.

Hermione closed her eyes tightly. She wouldn't think of it at all.

When she opened her eyes again, she quickly blinked away the moisture on her lashes and began studying the Daily Prophet want ads again. Naturally, she thought, they're hiring Seers. The one bloody thing I can't do.

So few jobs, she thought, and even fewer I'd have the slightest chance at. But there must be something, something –

Her finger halted at the very bottom of the page. Hermione's eyes widened, and she pulled the paper closer to her face, as though the words might say something different if she looked at them another way:

"POSITION AVAILABLE: Seeking a capable spellcaster and potion-brewer for assistantship. Hours flexible, discretion mandatory. All applicants' backgrounds will be checked. Apply Snape Manor, Tuesday."

**

II.

Snape Manor. Ridiculous name, really. It suggested a familial home, centuries old, deep in wizarding tradition.

In point of fact, Severus knew, the home was a few decades old, and he was the first Snape to ever live within. The sumptuous furnishings within it were recently purchased; the all-but-invisible house-elf who tended the home was newly brought on, still spending most of her free time up in the attic thinking wishfully of her old family.

Yet he had strived to create a sense of age. The carved wood furniture was so deep a brown as to be almost black, polished so that it reflected the flickering from the great fireplace. On its stone mantel, he had portraits of the parents he had so despised – enchanted to remain as still and quiet as Muggle pictures, though sometimes he caught their eyes following him around furtively. The candlesticks were gold, the drapes a dark green velvet. He had chosen what the women in the shops had told him were the best things, and to judge from the approval of the few guests he'd been forced to entertain, they'd spoken the truth.

Sometimes he told himself that he'd succeeded, that the manor had the feel of the grand old wizarding homes he'd visited. But so far as this was true, it was Malfoy Manor that Severus remembered, and their similarity was in the overripe glamour of ill-gotten gains. Only his library and his workshop seemed to truly be his own.

As much as any of this was his own.

This house had been purchased with money that he'd been given by Lord Voldemort; it was called "Snape Manor" because of honors Severus had won for undermining Dumbledore's work from within. In short, Severus had everything he'd ever dreamed of – all because the world had never known the truth.

He had never been captured as a spy. All the work he'd done for the Order of the Phoenix was as lost as the rest of the world he'd known. Severus was hailed as a hero, publicly praised and acknowledged as a brilliant wizard and courageous warrior – everything he'd ever wanted.

The irony of it had threatened to overwhelm Severus at first, but by now, guilt was no longer his master. He'd stopped grieving for the past, then stopped thinking about it altogether. What point was there, in continually reminding himself of the futility of his former endeavors? A new world had arisen to take the place of the old, and if he had gained a better position, that was no more his fault than the poverty of those wretched Muggles was theirs.

He'd done his best, his very best, for years and years, and then that fool boy had ruined it, confronting Voldemort before he was ready –

"Just like his father," Severus muttered, dismissing all memory of Harry Potter and turning back to the matter at hand.

Half-a-dozen applications for work lay on his library desk, each of them sterling. Accompanying them were letters of interest, each of them appalling. Every applicant gushed over the war record of Severus Snape, the heroic double agent: shallow, insincere and ingratiating, the lot. Severus rather thought these would make a fine exhibit for precisely why he found politeness such a bloody waste of time.

The bell rang, and he steeled himself. Another applicant, no doubt shining with confidence and ambition, the carefully chosen green-and-silver school tie around his or her neck: Severus hated the process of hiring an assistant only slightly less than he despised the idea of having such a person within his home for hours a day, for months to come. But if the locator spell couldn't be completed on time any other way –

When his door swung open and Binks the house-elf cleared her throat, Severus looked up, hoping he did not appear quite so bored as he felt. Then he recognized the girl standing there, and hoped he didn't appear utterly shocked.

"Professor Snape," Hermione Granger said evenly. "Is it still correct for me to call you Professor?"

"Quite appropriate," Severus said, though he had no opinion in the matter. He simply needed to say something to cover his own astonishment.

Had he known that Miss Granger had survived the war? He'd never heard her reported as dead, but Severus realized that he had assumed her to be as lost as all those others. She belonged to another life entirely, and her presence in his study jarred him almost past the point of composure.

No, Hermione Granger belonged to a Hogwarts filled with laughing children, presided over by a wise and strong Dumbledore who could never disappoint them, who could never die.

Lies. All lies.

Severus' eyes narrowed. "My patience for games has not increased since your school days, Miss Granger."

"I beg your pardon?" Her smooth face shifted into an outraged frown; she looked more like herself then -- precisely as self-righteous and annoying as he remembered.

"You have no doubt come to chastise me," Severus replied. "To bestir my conscience through some touching allusions to days gone by. But those days are indeed gone, Miss Granger. And I am not interested in listening to your remonstrance."

She drew herself up. "I don't suppose you are interested in days gone by." Her frowzy hair stuck out in all directions, as if electrified by her anger. "Nobody who ever – ever – gave a damn about what we were fighting for could possibly make himself comfortable while his old friends starve and die."

He'd never thought of any of them starving before.

As coldly as he could, Severus said, "As we have established, Miss Granger, I am unconcerned with what you have to say. As you've already said it, regardless, perhaps it is time for you to depart."

She began bundling up her things, breathing heavily through her nose in something that was not quite a snort. Only then did Severus realize she was holding a piece of parchment. He arched an eyebrow. "Don't tell me you've brought a petition."

Miss Granger laughed slightly, more, he thought, at herself than at anything else. She half-crumpled the sheet, then thrust it at him. "I'd come to apply for the position you advertised," Miss Granger said. "I must say, I've had some smashing job interviews the past two years, but this was by far the worst. At least it was also the shortest."

All at once, she changed in his eyes; it was as if he had put on a pair of spectacles that snapped the world into focus. He pushed aside his own reaction to her presence and studied her: shabby robes, scuffed shoes, nails bitten almost to the quick. She'd done her best to look presentable, but her best was no longer very good. And had her cheeks always been so hollow? Of course not – but the difference was more than years.

She was staring at him, startled; only then did Severus realize he was staring at her in return. "I shall let myself out," Miss Granger said, more quietly.

"Why did you believe I would hire you?" he replied.

The question did not confuse her; her eyes met his steadily. "You know my capabilities," she said, her chin lifting as she spoke. Miss Granger was still proud of her fine mind, and as often as Severus had despised her pride, he had always respected her intelligence.

"Yes," he replied, "I do." Out of a sense of perversity – he could call it nothing else – he continued, "Undoubtedly you would be one of the top candidates for the position."

Miss Granger was taken aback, as he had intended she should be. "After what you just said – after what I just said –"

"I told you before, Miss Granger: Your opinion is of supreme unimportance to me. Your abilities, however, are potentially useful."

She gaped at him, clearly still struggling to understand. Unpleasant memories of befuddled teenagers flickered in his memory, and he fought a sigh. At last, Miss Granger managed to collect herself somewhat and say, "I always thought you, ah, valued your work."

Apparently that was as close to a compliment, or gratitude, as Severus was likely to receive. He hesitated for only a few moments before continuing, "The project for which I am hiring an assistant is one commissioned by the Dark Lord himself. We would be experimenting with a potion used in a spell that is very important to him, and attempting to make that spell more powerful and accurate than it has ever been before. That is the work you have come here to do. I mean – to ask to do. Are we quite clear?"

Her face went pale, and Severus waited to see if she would rail at him some more, attempt a hex or simply storm out. Instead she stood there, carefully controlling her reaction. In a sense, he could respect that. "If I had been hired for this job, I would have performed it to the best of my ability," she said. "Sir."

"Perhaps we understand one another now," he thought. "There is no such thing as taking Lord Voldemort's side, not when there is no other side to take. There is only the world we are left to live in."

"I don't care to discuss that," Miss Granger replied.

"It is not your position to say what we will and will not discuss," Severus replied. "I am your employer. As such, I dictate the substance of our conversations."

She stopped and stared at him. "You mean – I'm hired?"

"I mean that, by your own request and choosing, you work for an assistant to the Dark Lord," Severus said. "Unless, of course, you choose to storm out into the night and throw this job offer back at me. No doubt your principles will keep you quite warm."

It was both beautiful and horrible to watch her, hesitating in front of him, torn between her desperation and her idealism. Severus had fought this battle long ago, but he still found a rich fascination in watching another grapple with the hard realities of the here and now. What would she do? Which way would she turn?

Miss Granger took a deep breath. "When – when do I start?"

"Tomorrow morning," he said. "Nine a.m., and I do not condone tardiness in employees any more than I do in students. Are we quite clear?"

"Quite."

"If you'll excuse me, I have other work to do." She did not say any farewells, just turned on her heel and left.

Severus realized that he felt vaguely disappointed. He immersed himself quickly in his notes, before he could ask himself why.

**

Chapter Text

III.

 

"You're working for Severus Snape."

Hermione didn't even turn around. "How very perceptive of you, Luna. How many days have you watched me arrive here in the morning and leave in the evening?"

"Five," Luna replied, ignoring the sarcasm, if she had even perceived it. She fell easily into step beside Hermione on the pavement, her wispy blonde hair trailing behind her in the twilight breeze. "It's a good place for you to be."

"It pays enough to keep me fed," Hermione said coolly, as she pulled on her gloves. "Which is my way of agreeing with you."

In truth, she disliked the job as much as she could dislike anything so vitally necessary to her. Snape had hired her, but he patently did not trust her; she was doing mere make-work, not any more engaging than the menial jobs she'd had before. He would not stay in the room with her for more than five minutes at a stretch, and she'd heard neither a word of praise nor instruction. Hermione sorely felt the lack of both. Also, it galled her to work in a house that enslaved an elf. But Binks brought her lunch every day, and she appeared to be treated no worse than Hermione was herself.

Most of all, Hermione disliked the fact that she'd let her hunger and desperation lead her to backing down in front of Snape. But that much, she understood, was her fault and not his.

"That's not quite what I meant," Luna said. She smiled shyly – an expression that brought her soft, blurry lines into focus and reminded Hermione of just why they'd been friends, long ago.

"It's enough for me," Hermione said. "But what did you mean?"

Luna took a deep breath. "You understand what Snape's doing, right?"

Hermione had been expecting something like this; in some ways, she was glad that Luna was broaching the subject this soon. "I don't know anything about the particulars, not yet anyway. But if you're asking that I know he works for Voldemort, yes, I know that."

"And – are you all right with that?"

"Of course not." As usual, Hermione's frizzy hair was flying every which way in the wind; she pulled some of it away from her face and knotted it at the nape of her neck. "But I don't know how much it matters. I don't think I have the power to really help Voldemort, or hurt him. He's already won."

"He hasn't won," Luna said, with more sureness than Hermione felt could possibly be justified. "But you're probably right about the rest of it. It's probably not anything so very important. But, still – well, we'd like to know what's going on in there. Just in case."

"You mean that you want me to spy on Professor Snape."

Luna quickly glanced around. "Quiet, Hermione!"

More quietly, Hermione replied, "I need this job too much, Luna. No."

They walked on in silence for a few moments before Luna said, "Is that all you've got to say?"

"That's all," Hermione said. "If you'll excuse me, I have a lot to do this evening. You see, I'm going out later tonight."

**

The banshee hovered just a few inches above the ground – a faint, silvery fog curling through the air beneath her. She cocked her head and spoke in a shivery voice: "Prisoner?"

Hermione breathed through her teeth, trying to avoid smelling the banshee's stale scent. "Remus Lupin." She watched as the banshee bent down over a black mirror, in which a few words swam up to spell themselves in white streaks. Finally, the banshee nodded and motioned Hermione toward the long line of people waiting for visiting night at Tartrosgate.

Good Lord, Hermione thought. How many people are there? Seventy-five? One hundred?

They were all crowded in a line, each of them bundled up, as Hermione was herself, in their heaviest coats, with gloves and scarves and hats to ward off the chill; though it was the first week of March, the nights were still cold. A few young women held children in their arms, soothing them into silence. Older couples looked at each other gravely, their only show of worry their tightly clutched hands. The worst were the ones who were alone; only a few shared her calm. Most were already weeping, visibly frightened, as well they might be when standing on the very edge of Tartrosgate itself. There were those who claimed that Tartrosgate wasn't as terrible as Azkaban; Hermione supposed that might be true. But Voldemort's prison camp held its own horrors. Whitechapel had been razed to create space for it, a wound of pain and death in the heart of the city.

Most of the people waiting, Hermione knew, had been brought here by love; it was easy to think that only love could strengthen anyone enough to do this. But her reasons were different, and more complex, if no less true. She focused on the distance; even the in the dark of a post-electric London, she could make out the nearby dome of St. Paul's, comforting in its familiarity.

"Silence!" the Banshee's voice slashed like ice through the crowd's murmuring, stilling them all instantly. "You all understand the properties of the Phlegathon Barrier. Those who attempt enchantments to circumvent the rules will find themselves quickly pulled down, and they will not resurface. You have one hour." Her gray hand turned over an hourglass, through which silver sand fell too quickly. "Go."

Everyone around Hermione took off at a run. Confused, she did the same, following them out into the dark and the cold.

The Phlegathon Barrier that encircled Tartrosgate was a sluggish, shallow ditch of liquid fire; its light provided the only illumination, a dull red that barely brightened the night sky. The ditch was only a couple of feet wide, but the Phlegathon fire had the power to kill anyone who touched it. Even breathing in the fumes for too long could hurt you; the books claimed that anyone who did so would lose her voice for nine years, a claim she had no desire to test. Hermione stared down at the roiling stream for a moment, transfixed as ever by anything new – how could it project so little heat, burning as it so clearly did?

"Mum?" a voice called, shaking her from her anxious reverie. A teenaged girl was peering across the barrier, staring at the faint shapes Hermione was beginning to make out in the dark. "Mum, where are you?"

"Samuel?" an older woman cried out. Then other voices began calling out other names, and immediately the scene was bedlam. The prisoners were rushing to one edge of the stream, visitors to the other, all of them desperately scrambling to find their loved ones as quickly as possible. Hermione felt a deep rush of fury – how cruel, how unnecessary, to make them all spend even a moment of their one hour in this frenzy.

Forcibly, she reminded herself: Be mad about it later. Find Professor Lupin now.

"Professor Lupin?" Hermione shouted, hurrying along the stream's bank as best she could. All around her, people were dropping to their knees or stopping short, either trying to identify someone on the other side or freezing in place as they found the ones they sought. She stumbled over a bit of broken sidewalk, clutched a leaning lamppost to right herself. "Remus Lupin?"

At last, amid the din, she heard a familiar, reedy voice: "Who's there?"

"Professor Lupin! It's me – Hermione Granger!" She made her way to the very brink of the barrier, and there at last she saw him. The sight struck her to the core, for all the best reasons, and all the worst.

In all the years Hermione had known Remus Lupin, he had never – to put it kindly – looked well. Lycanthropy exacted a terrible price from its sufferers, something Hermione had learn from books long before she'd ever identified Lupin for herself. But now he was more haggard than she had ever known him: his hair entirely gray, his clothes no more than rags, his face so emaciated that she knew the presence of the skull behind the flesh. And yet he was smiling at her, true joy in his eyes; the bond of their shared memories pulled them close. Whatever shock she might have betrayed at his appearance was quickly drowned in happiness – here, at last, was a friend. It had been too long for her, for them both.

"Hermione," Professor Lupin said tenderly. His breath was foggy in the night air, even so close to the Phlegathon Barrier. "Look at you. You look good enough to eat – figure of speech only, I promise." He was smiling so gently, so warmly, that it was impossible to think of him as a werewolf. And yet, the people who had put him here had been unable to think of him in any other way. "Have you really come to this monstrous place just to see me?"

"I'd have come farther," she said, and it was true. "Oh, Professor Lupin – how are you? Are you –" What could she say? All right? Faring well? None of that could be true, not here.

"I'm happy to see you," Professor Lupin said simply. "Let's sit. No point in being tired as well as cold, don't you think?"

She settled herself onto a patch of pavement, tucking her cloak around her as securely as she could. Then she realized Professor Lupin had no cloak. "Am I allowed to bring you things? Can – can I bring food, or a coat for you, or –"

"No, Hermione. You can't." Professor Lupin spoke kindly, as though she were the one who needed consolation. "I never knew what had become of you after the Battle of Samhain. Thank God you're alive."

"Sometimes it doesn't feel so lucky," she confessed, and just having spoken the words aloud brought tears to her eyes. How long had she needed to say this? And yet, to whom else could she have said it?

Professor Lupin shook his head. "Don't talk like that. While there's life, there's hope."

What hope? Hermione wanted to argue. But she couldn't; if Professor Lupin could encourage her from the heart of Tartrosgate, she had no right to tell him he was wrong. "How long have you been here?"

"Five weeks." She fought to hide her shudder; few prisoners at Tartrosgate survived longer than three or four months. "And they brought Firenze in only a few days ago – you remember Professor Firenze? Ah, good. Next time, I'll bring him along as well. I'm sure he'd appreciate the sight of a familiar face." Professor Lupin beamed at her. "Tell me how you are. What's it like for you, out there?"

"It's been better, but, honestly, it's been worse," Hermione said, and she smiled. She was grateful to be able to give him at least these scraps of good news. "I've finally been taken on at a position I expect to keep."

"I know it's hard for people like you, these days," Professor Lupin said.

Hermione nodded. "Of course you know. Professor –"

"Would you—" he paused, then said quietly, "Would you mind terribly calling me Remus? I know we were never on such terms before, but, honestly, one gets lonely for the sound of one's own name."

"Whatever you want," she said. In truth, it felt awkward, but she didn't have the heart to deny him such a simple request. "Remus, then. I just wanted to say – I never understood what it was like for you, before the war. How hard it is, going around in a world where everyone hates you, refuses to employ you, treats you like –"

"Hush," said Professor Lupin – no, she reminded herself, Remus. "They didn't treat me so badly. At least, it doesn't seem so now." They were quiet together for a few moments, before he said, more brightly, "What's this job you've gotten? I hope it's something challenging. You have a fine mind, Hermione. I'd hate to think of that going to waste."

"Well," Hermione replied. "Challenging is one way to put it." She'd hoped to avoid the particulars, but Remus looked so interested – so distracted from his wretched surroundings – that she mustered up her resolve to plunge ahead. "I'm working as assistant to Severus Snape."

Remus' face clouded. "Snape. Still the Death Eaters' cherished hero, then?"

Hermione glanced around, seeking the shape of a banshee or goblin lurking in the dark. "Oughtn't you to lower your voice?"

"They don't watch us here," Remus replied. "They're quite sure there's nothing we can do, not from within Tartrosgate." Something in his voice – something she might almost have called pride – made Hermione stare searchingly at him. But whatever his voice had given away wasn't reflected in his calm, curious gaze. He continued, more evenly, "I suppose they never had any reason to doubt him. So far as they knew, they had every reason to reward him."

"You'd think he couldn't keep his silence," Hermione muttered. "That simple pride – or decency – whatever you want to call it, would have made him tell the truth."

"Hermione –"

"I mean it," she said, and some of the anger she'd suppressed the past two weeks began to bubble over. "How can he even stand it, reporting to Lord Volde –" Hermione paused, taking in the many people huddled nearby, all speaking to their loved ones. "To You-Know-Who? Knowing that he's responsible for killing Professor Dumbledore and so many others? How can he keep silent? If he can't do something, can't he at least say something?"

"I imagine he sees himself as – pragmatic," Remus said. Though his voice was grudging, he added, "There are worse sins than pragmatism."

She ducked her head. "He lives in a mansion built with money made of Harry's death. If he's comfortable with that, fine, but I can't be."

Remus did not answer her, and for a few moments they were silent together. Though she did not mean to eavesdrop, Hermione couldn't help hearing the conversation nearest her: A few feet away, a heavily pregnant woman sat awkwardly on the ground, leaning so far over the Phlegathon Barrier that its dull red glow cast eerie shadows on her face. "It's a good place for me," she assured the thin, worried man who sat on Remus' side, clad in prison rags. "They don't ask me to do too much heavy work, and I'm to have a whole week's lying in." The man's hands moved toward her, as though he would take her in his arms; the Phlegathon Barrier allowed just enough closeness to be unspeakably cruel.

Hermione took a deep breath. "I'm doing well," she said, steadily and honestly. "My personal opinion of Snape aside, he's polite to me, at least by Snape's standards of politeness. I don't have to worry about my rent any longer. That's about as good as it gets these days, isn't it?"

"These days," Remus said, and again he seemed distant, strangely preoccupied. When she stared at him, he said, more sharply, "Will you come back to see me, Hermione? I know it's no pleasure."

"But it is," she hastened to assure him. "It is a pleasure. Just seeing a friendly face – you don't know what it means to me. I'm sorry – of course you do. Better than I do, I imagine."

Remus just smiled. "It won't always be as hard as this."

How many times had she told herself precisely that? When were things supposed to get better, exactly? But Hermione kept her retorts to herself and just smiled at him, as warmly as the night chill and unnatural light would allow. "I suppose not."

He looked very serious indeed. "It'll be much, MUCH harder."

She started laughing the same moment he did.

**

IV.

 

Severus began counting the ways in which Hermione Granger annoyed him on the very first day she worked as his assistant.

First, there was the way she simply refused to accept any explanation, however basic, as sufficient. He could give her no instruction without her asking "But why --?" The curiosity that had been acceptable in a student was infuriating in an employee, not least because he was not yet such a fool as to entrust Harry Potter's erstwhile best friend with Lord Voldemort's secrets.

Second, he hated the way she carried on about Binks the house-elf. Only on her first day of work did he remember the flyers that had swooped around the Hogwarts hallways, advertising something called S.P.E.W. Miss Granger kept trying to engage the house-elf in conversation, which Binks clearly neither wanted not appreciated. Apparently it was beneath Miss Granger's exalted moral status to accept her lunch on a tray from anyone whose health and rights she had not fully inquired into first.

He rather thought Miss Granger might have noticed that she received her lunch on a tray. His other assistants had neither expected nor received a meal as part of their work. But his other assistants had never looked so painfully thin. Severus had realized, even as she left their "interview," that he could not abide the sight of her so nearly emaciated. Seeing her that way pricked at his conscience, a sensation he worked to avoid.

So Miss Granger was given lunch. She accepted it as no more than her due, which was the third way in which she annoyed him.

The fourth way revealed itself at the end of their first week of work.
Severus waited for her to finish her transcriptions, then met her at the door with her pay in his hand: cash, not a cheque. When she looked up at him quizzically, he explained, "I have heard of the present -- inequities -- at Gringotts."

"Stealing from Mudblood accounts, you mean," she replied. Her gloved hands were still at her side, betraying no nervousness, no eagerness. "When the accounts aren't frozen altogether. You're quite right; payment in cash is more sensible. I ought to have thought of it myself."

He held his broad hand over her delicate one; though she was nearly as tall as he, Snape realized, her hands and feet were still small, so much so that it reminded him of Potions class long-ago, of those same fingers wrapped around smoking flasks or exam scrolls. It was that unwelcome flash of memory, no doubt, that led him to say, "No second thoughts? No qualms?"

"About the job? Oh. You mean -- about taking the money." Miss Granger hesitated, her hand still outstretched beneath his. He rather enjoyed seeing her hesitate at last.

"This money comes from Lord Voldemort's coffers," he said, pronouncing the words slowly, so that she could linger on them. "It was collected in tributes, and it is spent to fulfill the Dark Lord's wishes. In other words, for the work you do for him."

Miss Granger stood shock-still, her face pale, as though he had struck her. She didn't pull her hand away, and he had not expected her to; he knew quite well how badly she needed the money. But he had anticipated her cringing, making excuses, even weeping. Severus wanted some acknowledgement from her that they were no different after all.

Instead she straightened her back. "Voldemort owes me more than this," she said in a low voice. "Anything I can take away from him, I'll take."

Miss Granger was able to make surrender look like victory. Her gift of self-delusion had been denied to him. This was the fourth way in which she annoyed him.

The next way in which she annoyed him -- no, he thought, more than annoyed him, but drove him quite mad -- was not something she could help, but Severus held it against her regardless. Just as he had suspected when she first came to him; Hermione Granger reminded him too much of days gone by.

Odd, he thought, how little he had enjoyed Hogwarts at the time; he knew, intellectually, that he had spent many hours correcting pupils who'd made ludicrous mistakes, filling out applications for the job he most wanted but never received, and toiling in the ridiculous ancillary jobs that teaching required: chaperoning Yule Balls, overseeing House discipline, and the like.

But Miss Granger's presence brought up other memories, strangely more vivid than those he had considered more often. He remembered the banter at the staff table, so much more honest than anyone dared to be these days. He remembered the crisp air on the mornings before Quidditch matches, the sensation of sitting in the stands surrounded by laughing, cheering children
in silver and green. He remembered the feeling that Albus Dumbledore was always nearby, always listening, always right.

Hermione made him remember what it had been like to feel that way about Dumbledore and Hogwarts and the rest, so that was the fifth way in which she drove him mad. The sixth was that, over the course of her first month with him, it became impossible to think of her as Miss Granger any longer. Though he had never called her anything else at school, nor ever thought about her at any length at all, in his mind she became Hermione, and he had to consciously remind himself not to call her that.

He suspected that his tendency to think of her as Hermione had to do with memories she'd unearthed of Harry Potter, and the days when Dumbledore and all the rest were looking to that boy as their savior and their hope. Those memories, for any number of reasons, were among those Severus least wished to revisit.

Of course, this woman -- tall and rail-thin, with eyes that were older than her years -- little resembled the round-cheeked girl who had trailed along at Potter's side all those years. Sometimes it seemed as though nothing remained of that child but wild hair and insufferable arrogance. But nonetheless, he began thinking of her as Hermione without realizing it, and despite realizing, it, he could not stop.

Severus did not discover the seventh way Hermione was destined to drive him mad until several weeks into her employment. He'd been following her progress more closely than she knew, double-checking her notes and her calculations. Only after becoming quite sure that she was ready did he make the decision to move her from her small anteroom into his workshop.

She would, of course, learn the full extent of what he was working on – but Severus had always known this was inevitable. What he had not known was how little she yet knew her place.

"What are you doing?"

"Beg pardon?" Hermione paused, a small bronze cauldron in her hands. "Do you mean the re-organizing?"

"How does this --" Severus trusted that the sting in his voice would make it clear that "this" referred to the chaotic jumble on his worktable. "-- constitute organization of any sort?"

Inexplicably, she brightened, and words began tumbling from her as if bubbling over. "I've devised this new system, you see, and I really think it will maximize efficiency, once it's done, of course. Now you're grinding the powders all the way at that end of the table, which means you've got to bring them over here to begin combining them with the essences, and anything could happen. Bit stupid, really. Not you, of course, Professor, but the system. I thought, if we moved the powders over here --"

"The light is poor at this end of the table, Miss Granger," he said, his voice low and growling even to his own ears. "How then do you suggest we manage the delicate work of creating the powders, if we cannot see them or one another? Through mind-reading, perhaps?"

Ah, yes. The "mind-reading" got to her, as Severus had suspected it would. That particular claim to fame had almost eclipsed all the others in the short, unhappy life of Harry Potter, before the end. His own memories of the boy's Legilemens ability were unpleasant enough to add some spice to his appreciation of Hermione's crestfallen face.

She murmured, "Well. I suppose we could move everything over to the area with more light – it's a small work space, but it would do."

"It is not your place to move anything." When would she understand? He glowered at her and stepped closer, meaning to impress some of the truth upon her at last. "You are not here to improve my methods, Miss Granger. You are not here to rearrange the furnishings. You are not here to comment upon the well-being of my house-elf. You are here to do what I tell you to do and no more."

"With all due respect, sir," Hermione began, in the most disrespectful tone of voice possible, "you said that you hired me for my abilities. So why won't you let me use them to help you?"

"I know where I require help," Severus replied. "And the work with which I require help is important, Miss Granger. Substantial. Intellectually challenging. In other words, NOT associated with the placement of cauldrons."

Hermione cocked her head. "Have you never heard the phrase, 'The devil is in the details'?"

Details. This chit of a girl wanted to lecture him about details – he, who could measure a gram of mimbulus pollen by testing the weight on a fingertip, who had navigated the treacherous waters of Voldemort's inner circle through evaluating the meaning of each arch comment, each muttered word.

He realized he was smiling an unpleasant smile, saw it reflected in the increasing uneasiness of her face. "Shall we discuss details, Miss Granger? I think it is time, at long last, to discuss the particulars of why you are here."

"The spell, you mean." Hermione's hushed tone might have indicated fear or anticipation; Severus could not tell which. "You're going to explain the spell."

"Your behavior occasionally to the contrary, you are not a dullard," Severus said. "You will therefore have made certain deductions based on the potion you have been brewing and its properties.

She did not disappoint him. "In essence, the potion is designed to intensify magic," she said, reciting as clearly as though she were still in his classroom. "It contains essence of jasmine and dragon scales, both noted for their empowering qualities. I've wondered about the wisdom of using both in the same potion – that's extraordinary power, maybe overwhelming, if not directed with great precision."

He steepled his hands before him. "And how would we direct that power? Give it precision?"

"The scarab-shell powder acts as a stabilizing force," Hermione said. "And – I meant to tell you before, I think that's a clever choice, really, not what you'd expect but complementary to both ingredients –"

Severus disliked it when she became conversational. He summoned his best schoolmaster's presence. "Do you think that will be sufficient?"

Hermione shook her head. "Not without controls within the spell. And we'll need to refine the potion more, most likely. To do that – I'll have to know what it is."

Her eagerness was ill-concealed, and Severus found himself unaccountably enjoying the moment. This, after all, was the test. This was the moment that would tell him whether Hermione Granger would continue in his life or not. For a moment, it occurred to him to wonder why he cared, but that curiosity was quickly drowned out in the intensity of the moment. "The potion is designed to enhance a locator spell."

"—Locator spell?"

"At present, in order to discover the precise physical location of any given individual, all spells require an object belonging to that person, preferably one important to him or her." Severus watched Hermione carefully. Was it her changing emotions that created the shadows in her eyes? "Upon our completion of this potion, the locator spell in question should be able to find – within a reasonable degree of accuracy – anyone that the seeker has ever met."

Hermione put one hand on her chest, as if trying to catch her breath. "They mean to use this against the resistance."

"What's left of it." Severus still found it astonishing that anyone remained so hope-addled as to continue fighting Voldemort at his fullest power.

"And that's what I'm helping to do." She was shaking visibly now, clearly horrified at their work. At him.

He'd known, from the beginning, that this hour would come – a moment that would either seal her to him, when she submitted to his authority and wishes, or that would divide them forever. What he had not known was that when he received the answer – that they would be divided – that it would outrage him. "I always wondered what anesthetic you'd applied to your overdeveloped conscience, Miss Granger," he said, his voice low and overly sweet. "It appears that it has at last deserted you."

"These people – they can't hurt him. Not any longer. It's pointless, going after them – a lot of crackpots who worship Neville Longbottom –"

"It is not given to us to judge the Dark Lord's plans," Severus reminded her. "Only to carry them out."

Hermione shook her head, frowsy curls tumbling as she did so. "But these are innocent people. As good as innocent, anyway."

Severus felt something within him close up, go tight. "I doubt any innocents remain."

She turned on one heel and fled the room. It was more than an hour before he condescended to ask Binks where she'd gone. As he suspected, Hermione had left. He also suspected she would not return.

But the eighth way in which she drove him mad was revealed during the course of the weekend that followed. And that way, he thought, was the most surprising of all:

Hermione Granger was not a spy.

He'd never been certain one way or the other, of course. He would not have hired her had he not thought there was a good chance that she was what she claimed to be and no more. But he had known her for seven years at Hogwarts, seven years in which she had dogged Harry Potter's every step, along with one of those Weasleys, whichever one had been in Potter's year. He had hoped that she, too, had understood the shape of the new world in the way he did. Perhaps he had also hoped for another person who could walk his path, forget the past, live only in the here and now. He had not, however, expected it.

A spy might have feigned horror at the locator spell, even thrown a tantrum, but she would not have stormed out. A spy would not have quit just when the information she wanted was finally revealed to her.

Was Hermione after no more information than just the raw fact of the locator spell's existence? Unlikely, Severus thought, but still possible. So, the Friday night after she had left Snape Manor, Severus cloaked himself in a Disillusionment Spell and set out for the street she'd said she lived on.

He found her quickly, without the use of any spells; Binks had mentioned Hermione's grousing about the cracked skylight. He could see the candlelight flickering through the panes, then saw it extinguish around midnight. Hermione was in her bed, sleeping, and he had no reason to think she was not alone.

During the next two days, he watched her residence near-constantly, sending Binks out to do it when he wanted sleep or food. Hermione went nowhere in all that time, nor did anyone visit her. No owls came to her windowsill; no messengers left notes or parcels.

Astonishing, Severus thought. I might have trusted her. If it stung for him to realize that now – at the point when she had left his employ forever – it was altogether less annoying than the fact that she had defied his expectations. He knew that, for months to come, he would be second-guessing the way he had handled the situation, how he had assessed her – and that promised to be a slow and sure way for her to drive him mad, without doing anything else at all.

The ninth, final and most fatal way Hermione Granger was destined to drive him mad made itself clear that Monday. His morning's labors passed slowly; as much as he had dreaded having company in his home and his workshop, Severus found that the silence of solitude now oppressed him. But he was prepared to get used to that.

Just as Binks brought him his lunch, however, the doorbell chimed; as the house-elf scurried away to answer it, Severus wondered who could be calling upon him. Surely not Lucius Malfoy – he'd made it clear the potion wouldn't be ready yet, not for weeks to come –

Then Hermione walked through the door.

They stared at each other for a moment, no words coming to Severus' mind. Mercifully, she spoke first, and simply: "I came for my wages."

Of course. He'd had no chance to pay her for the last week's work. She needed the money too much to let it go. But even as he rose to begin counting out sickles and knuts, Severus found himself saying, "You are late, Miss Granger."

"Late?" Her forehead furrowed, and some of her careful composure faltered. "Of course – I ought to have waited for payment on Friday, but I failed to do so –"

"You departed early on Friday," Severus said, gaining confidence as he realized what he meant to do. "I will condone such behavior only once. Compounding that by being hours late today – well, it shows little respect, don't you think? I shall have to dock you one day's payment. See that it doesn't happen again."

Hermione stared at him. "You mean – I'm not sacked?"

"Not yet, though at this rate I will make no assurances for the future.' Severus gave her his coldest glare. "Unless, of course, you mean to resign."

"I don't," she said, shaking her head. He'd thought she would struggle with the decision longer. "I can accept – I mean, I need –" Hermione hesitated, then simply put one hand on his forearm for just a moment and said, quietly, "Thank you."

The touch of her hand on his arm rushed along his skin, elbow to shoulder to spine. He forgot all about her blowsy hair and shabby robes; he saw only her soft mouth and dark eyes.

Severus pulled his arm away, and she immediately began bustling around the workshop. "I'll only need a few minutes to get started, Professor – just let me get settled –"

He watched her frantically pulling out the grinders and flasks she needed. To his surprise and horror, the sensation of her touch lingered, both on his arm and within his spirit.

At long last, he realized that he had come to desire Hermione Granger. What surer proof of madness could he possibly have had?

**

Chapter Text

V.

"I shouldn't even be here," Hermione repeated for the tenth or eleventh time.

The dozen or so people seated around her in the cellar paid this no mind. Ever since her first words – about the locator spell, and the likelihood that Severus Snape would succeed in enhancing it – the group had been abuzz with its own slightly manic energy.

"We don't want to stop him," one man insisted, thumping the low wooden bench for emphasis. "We want him to succeed! Then we steal it from him – and we use it to find Azkaban. That's all that stands between us and a rescue mission, you know –"

"Not a lack of weapons?" Hermione said tiredly. "Nor the fact that the Dementors are again in residence there?"

She might have added that, even if the group did succeed, they would find Neville half-mad at best. However, Hermione refrained because it seemed too harsh and depressing – assuming they paid any attention her, and if they did not, saying it would be pointless anyway.

"It's too risky," Luna Lovegood said. Her blonde hair was piled up in a ponytail high on her head, making her look almost as young as she had at Hogwarts. And yet, for once, she appeared to be making sense. "If it exists for our use, it exists for You-Know-Who's use."

Many others around the room nodded, surprising Hermione. Funny – all this time, she'd assumed that Luna's group could only be comprised of crackpots and dilettantes, people as disconnected from reality as Luna so often was herself.

But now that she'd finally made contact with them – three weeks after she'd learned the truth of the locator spell, agonizing weeks she'd spent pacing the floor, counting each minute, waiting for any potential suspicion to clear – Hermione was changing her opinion. Although a few had the wild-eyed glaze of zealotry, most seemed ordinary enough. They were eager, perhaps even a bit reckless; then again, who wasn't desperate, these days? After nearly two months of working for Severus Snape, Hermione knew she was in no position to judge.

Even Luna had a measure of calm about her. She still wore her strange costumes – an honest-to-God catsuit this time, as though she'd go rappelling down walls after this. But when given a genuine problem to tackle, a real issue instead of mere gossip, she seemed able to focus. "Hermione, is it possible for you to sabotage the creation of the potion?"

"I can slow our progress," Hermione said. She'd been considering this question carefully herself. "I've already done so, at least slightly. But I can't hold Snape off forever. The theory behind the potion is sound, and he's smart enough to know it. And if I make stupid mistakes, tipping over cauldrons and the like, he'll become suspicious. He knows that's not the sort of thing I do."

"And if he becomes suspicious, he'll have you killed!" someone in the back said. This was one of the wild-eyed variety.

Hermione managed not to roll her eyes. "Far more likely that he'd fire me," she said. "Or try and use the knowledge against me."

She didn't bother controlling her shiver – she didn't think most people in the room were paying attention to her, and if anyone did notice, surely the cellar's chill would explain it. But Luna cocked her head, her ponytail tilting to one side. "What is it? Is there trouble – between you and Snape?"

Had Luna asked as a member of the underground, Hermione would have brushed off the question. But she was asking as a friend – as the friend she had been, not so terribly long ago. Hermione took a deep breath. "Lately Snape's been acting differently around me. I mean, I think he's become – interested in me, you'd say."

Luna made a face. "Snape? Oh, God."

"I don't know how much of it has to do with me, really," Hermione said. Self-consciously, she touched her unruly hair. "It's not as though I'm much of a temptress, these days. I think it's more a matter of control. He knows he has a lot of power over me. Sometimes he's tempted to use that power. That's about the measure of it."

"He hasn't – he wouldn't force you, would he?" Luna's eyes were wide.

"No, he's not that sort. That's too brutish for him. Too easy, if you understand me." Hermione paused, collecting her own thoughts. She remembered from class that Snape had a sadistic streak, but she felt certain that it didn't run that deep. His desire for power – that was deeper. He wouldn't like the idea of making her doing anything she didn't want to do. He would like the idea of making her want to do it, which wasn't going to happen.

One of the underground members was grinning and shaking his head. "But don't you see? This is the perfect opportunity!" When Hermione stared at him, he began speaking excitedly, gesturing with his broad hands. "All you have to do is play into that. If you were sleeping with him, you'd be a more effective distraction, and he'd think he had you under control, so you could do a lot more to slow down the spell without being suspected –"

"How DARE you?" Hermione didn't feel herself becoming angry; she went from calm to outrage in the beat of a heart, felt her hands clenching into fists just as her blood pressure soared, pounding in her temples, flooding her brain. "How have you the NERVE to suggest something like that?"

Someone else sniped, "You know, there IS a war on."

Hermione shot back, "But, somehow, I'm not a whore just yet."

Luna stood up at her side and slipped a comforting arm around her shoulders. "Basil, that's too much to ask. You know it is. Besides, I'm sure Hermione can come up with some other way to interfere with Snape's work. Can't you?"

To hell with Snape. To hell with them all. Hermione shrugged off Luna's arm and went for her cloak. "I'll do my best. You've been warned. Don't contact me again."

"Hermione –" Luna began, but there was no point in waiting around for anything more.

**

"This is the perfect opportunity," Ron had said.

"Oh, I'm just – I don't know –" Hermione had blushed, holding her robe close around her as they went through the halls of the Burrow, toward Ron's room. They had finished their seventh year and left Hogwarts for good just a few days before.

"Come on! Nobody's home, and nobody's going to be home for hours. D'ya know the next time that's likely to happen? Next century, maybe." He'd had such a broad grin on his face, and his hand had been warm in hers. She could still remember the white cotton T-shirt he was wearing, the feel of her bare feet against the wooden floor as she tiptoed, even though nobody else was home. She could still hear him saying, more gently, "It's not – I mean, you do want to, right? If you're not ready –"

Ready. She'd been so far past ready, for months and months. Hermione had laughed at him, then tilted her face up for a kiss. "It's perfect. You're perfect."

"Hardly," Ron had said, pulling her into his bedroom.

Hermione blinked back tears as she walked along the London streets, trying to force back the memory. She tried so hard not to think of the past, not any more than she could avoid, but at the moment she was lost in what had been.

They'd lost their virginity together in his room that day, though not without awkwardness and even laughter. Had she ever laughed as hard as she did when Ron had to jump out of bed and take down his Quidditch posters? The players had kept pumping their fists in the air and giving them thumbs-up, which was far more unnerving than encouraging.

But after that – after that, it had been hours of perfect quiet, perfect peace. They'd lain together beneath a quilt Molly Weasley had made, and Hermione still remembered the pieces of fabric dancing, making new patterns every few minutes. Flying geese. Wedding rings.

That had been four years ago. Ron died with Harry two years ago.

In those two years, Hermione had been with nobody else, nor did she want to be. She couldn't even imagine wanting anybody but Ron. Her grief wasn't the only factor there; the days when she could have been so open and happy and free – when she could have come to know anybody as intimately as she'd known Ron, just as a person, long before they were lovers – had passed.

And if she could not imagine taking another lover of her own choice, for her own desires, how could they even suggest that she –

Hermione's mind flashed with imagined images: Snape's pale hands on her, his silky voice telling her lies, her own attempts to conceal her true reaction. Was that was she was supposed to have instead of Ron?

Never, Hermione thought. Never. I'll find another way. A better way.

So she walked home through the April rain, wrapping herself deeper in memories of Ron Weasley, and a long morning at the Burrow, and how soft his red hair was in her hands.

**

Her resolution held for one week – until her next visit to Tartrosgate.

Remus looked even worse, which Hermione would have thought impossible. His cheer remained undiminished, however. "You're looking well, Hermione. Don't you agree, Firenze?"

Of the three of them, Firenze appeared the least changed; Hermione supposed it had something to do with being magical – that, or the fact that he seemed as unconcerned with events around him as he ever had. "All humans change, Muggle and wizard alike," Firenze said in his deep voice. He stood above Lupin, gazing skyward; her presence interested him only very slightly. "The planets do not change. They tell us far more than tongues ever will."

"Ah. Yes. Well-put." Remus breathed out, then smiled and clapped his hands together. "I meant what I said. You've gained weight, and in this day and age, that's not just a compliment, it's an achievement."

"I suppose I have," Hermione said. "Helps, having three square a day again." No sooner had she spoken the words than she regretted them. Remus was even more painfully thin than before; he looked as though he might break in two, just from the weight of his ragged clothes.

Perhaps her dismay showed in her eyes, because Remus leaned forward, coming very close to the edge of the Phlegathon Barrier. "Careful!" she cried.

"No worries," Remus said. "I'm in no hurry to be sucked down into that thing."

"You know what happens if you just breathe it in, don't you? About losing your voice for nine years?" Hermione protested. The roiling liquid fire of the stream was casting too-brilliant light upon his gaunt face. "And that's the very least that could happen –"

"Which of us was the teacher, again?" Remus said, a teasing smile on his face. It dimmed somewhat as he continued, "I doubt I have to worry much about nine years in the future, anyway."

Firenze, apropos of nothing, said, "The stars do not tell us our fates. We tell our own, by what we claim to see there. We behave more truly than we know, when charmed by the presence of Venus, or fixed in the bloody stare of Mars."

"How very true," Hermione said coolly. She did not appreciate the interruption. "Remus, what is it?"

"You know what it means to be in Tartrosgate. You know the odds of my ever leaving here, or even surviving inside much longer."

"Professor – I mean, Remus –"

Remus cut her off with a gesture. "I'm doing what I can here, and that's more than Voldemort's people would like to think. But, just in case, I thought you ought to know how much this has meant to me, your coming to visit. You remind me that all the good things I remember – teaching, and being friends with Harry, and living with Sirius – all those things were real. I didn't imagine them. I didn't make them up. Sometimes, here, it feels as though nothing that wonderful could ever have been true." Remus smiled at her sadly. "You tell me that it was. You remind me what I fought for – that the battle was worth fighting."

She made it through the rest of the visit as best she could, before stumbling out at the end of the hour with the rest of the visitors. Most of them were in tears by the end, sobbing as they left their loved ones behind for the last time. Hermione, on the other hand, felt strangely calm and sure, apart from it all.

The next morning she rose early and stopped in an expensive apothecary's shop on her way to Snape Manor. It had been years since she'd entered such a place, years more since she'd walked past the healing essentials and into the part of the shop reserved for luxuries. In something like wonder, Hermione stared at the shelves filled with Glowing Powders, dragon-horn combs and ambergris perfumes. Had there ever been a time she'd spent money on such things without a second thought?

"No, no, NO," said a familiar voice. Hermione ducked behind a display of sunglasses; through their color-shifting lenses she could see Pansy Parkinson, blond curls bouncing as she impatiently shoved a canister of powder back at the shopgirl. "I wanted lilac-scented, not lavender-scented."

The shopgirl hurried to fix Pansy's bubble bath. Hermione stared at her in frank curiosity, mixed with a little envy. Pansy's robes were clearly new, cut fuller in the sleeve, narrower in the waist. The brilliant red color looked rather strident to Hermione, but at least it was bright and cheerful, as opposed to her own cheap grays. It caught the eye, and that was precisely what mattered to her now.

Well, she couldn't do anything about that. She'd have to start with smaller measures.

As soon as Pansy had flounced out with her purchases, Hermione went to the counter, a bottle of Sleekeasy's in her hand. The shopgirl seemed relieved to be able to be curt with someone, after Pansy's imperious ordering about. "Eight sickles."

Hermione counted out the precious coins, imagining how much food each would buy. Seduction was more expensive than she'd realized.

**

VI.

 

It would be the best thing for her, really.

Severus had, during the past two years, become adept at a kind of calculus of pragmatism; for any given action, he could quickly and accurately weigh the consequences, the costs, the benefits. He had learned to admit no concerns beyond the most concrete. It was the only way to remain sane, not to mention alive. So he tried to convince himself that his wish to make Hermione Granger his mistress was for her own good, as much as for any of his selfish desires.

And his desires grew more selfish by the day. He couldn't deceive himself in that regard.

Hermione had taken on a softer aspect in the past few weeks; that wasn't his imagination, but observable, objective fact. She'd gained weight and had a glow to her skin that had been lacking before, no surprise given that she had been near starving. Apparently she had saved up enough money from her wages to feel more secure, enough that she could now buy perfume, makeup perhaps. He didn't know much about such things, though he perceived the results. Her eyes were rimmed in something dark that made them seem larger, more alluring. Her lips shone in deeper shades. And, though he was less certain of this, Severus thought perhaps she was doing something different with her hair.

In no sense was he fool enough to believe that she was doing this to attract him. She'd made her contempt for his choices clear, and as yet she showed few signs of taking a more realistic view of the matter. Hermione continued working for him and disapproving of him with no apparent awareness of her own hypocrisy. Also, she was a young woman, only just past girlhood; Severus knew that nobody of his years would be her first choice, even if he possessed more of those shallow physical attributes females so prized.

But he was the one who desired her, and he was the one who had the power to make her his.

No, he told himself. I must not think of it that way. I must not.

Manipulating a powerless girl – one who had come to him destitute and hungry, one who needed a job badly enough to work for the enemy she had once hated – Severus could not justify that. But when he thought of it differently – as giving Hermione a place in his home, and therefore a place in the world from which she would again have some standing, some safety –

That, he could justify. Perhaps.

"Professor Snape?" Hermione was leaning over the worktable, squinting at a beaker full of bubbling green liquid. "Do you think this is quite right?"

Come to think of it, the liquid's surface was far too foamy. "Indeed not."

She swiftly removed the beaker from heat and set it in a wooden holder to cool. As she frowned at the still-boiling mixture, he noticed the shade of her lips – pink today, not bright –

"I'm having second thoughts about the scarab-shell powder," Hermione said, bringing him back to more immediate concerns. "The instability it causes – it's greater than I know how to compensate for."

No other ingredient would do. Severus said, "Then we should think of better ways to compensate for that instability. Certain venoms might prove useful."

"Venoms! Of course!" She brightened, as if he had given her a gift instead of a piece of information. "I'd never have thought of that." With a sidelong glance, she added, "And you never mentioned it in class."

"It is an advanced technique," Severus said, rather sourly. Of all the foolishness. Imagine if he'd given mamba venom to that halfwit Neville Longbottom.

"But the paralyzing effect of some of the poisons – I see it now. Some elements in potions react almost like living tissues. So the paralysis would create a kind of stasis."

Such a fine mind. Severus found himself taking authentic pleasure in the moment as he crossed his arms and said, "If you understand the principles so well, then you can tell me the additional problems we may face."

"All venoms are corrosive," she replied, tapping the side of the beaker experimentally. A faint crust of crystals had formed around the rim. "So that's potentially damaging to other ingredients. It will be a matter of finding the right venom. That could take a while."

"I have confidence in your abilities," he said. And it was true. Though Hermione's overcautious ways were slowing their progress, he knew that the results of her curiosity were making the potion better than it otherwise would have been. He didn't think she fully understood just how much improvement she'd achieved over his original plans.

Then again, it did not matter if Hermione Granger understood that. There were others who needed to hear the information more, and sooner, for her good as well as his own.

**

"Welcome, sir," squeaked a nervous-looking house-elf. "Welcome to Malfoy Manor."

Severus sometimes pretended that his manor house truly reflected the grandeur of ages past. But that pretense dissolved like copper in dragon's blood as soon as he entered Lucius Malfoy's home.

"Severus," Narcissa cooed as she leaned forward to kiss the air beside each of his cheeks. "It's been ages. Far too long."

"Indeed," Severus said, trying not to flinch as she briefly pressed his hands with her own, the slick satin of her gloves unnaturally cold. He knew that Narcissa Malfoy had not missed him any more than he had missed her – as if anyone could miss such a vain, cruel, self-absorbed creature. But officially they were both heroes of Voldemort's return to power, and as such politics dictated that they pretend to get along.

Groups of people stood around, gossiping and drinking individualized brews, each bubbling with a different sort of narcotic or hallucinogen. Within a few hours, this gathering would be wildly uninhibited; Severus intended to have left long before that.

"Lucius has been longing to talk with you," Narcissa said, beginning to weave her way through the crowd, pulling Severus behind her. Her white gown was the brightest shade in the dark room, and he felt eyes following them as they went. Just as well. He needed to be seen.

So many hated faces, wearing broad smiles and enjoying their privilege. There was the Malfoy heir, that insufferable boy Severus had always had to pretend to like as part of his cover; Draco himself had dropped the act of liking Severus as soon as he left school and now treated him with the same airy condescension he did everyone else. On his arm was that rich, air-headed girl he'd gotten himself engaged to, Pansy something or other. Next to them were the Goyles, father and son, equally stupid, equally mean-spirited, equally hulking. In their gray robes, they loomed over the engaged couple like a misplaced Stonehenge. And then, finally –

"Professor Snape. What an unexpected pleasure."

Lucius Malfoy's smile was the most unnerving in the room, perhaps because it was the most genuine. "Hasn't Narcissa taken care of you? Tell me what you want to drink."

"I cannot stay," Severus said quickly. "There are matters we should discuss. I shall not keep you long from your – festivities."

Lucius put a brotherly hand on his arm and walked with him to the balcony that overlooked the courtyard – where, Severus could see, several partygoers were taking advantage of the warmer spring air and their increasing intoxication, dancing, groping, flirting, laughing too loudly. Calmly, Lucius said, "Is there a problem?"

"Not at all," Severus said. He looked up at the stars, to avoid seeing the carnival unfolding beneath them. "I only wanted to inform you of the potion's progress. We are moving more slowly than I had anticipated, but I believe the final results will be powerful beyond even the Dark Lord's dreams."

"Excellent," Lucius said. "No real rush, after all. Not as if we're hunting down anyone but a bunch of amateurs and malcontents at this point." After sipping pale blue liquid from his goblet, he continued, "You know, you might have had a meeting with me about this today. Then you could have come tonight to enjoy yourself."

Severus said stiffly, "I am far too entrenched in the Dark Lord's work to take time for such amusements."

"Severus, does it not occur to you that you've turned victory into defeat?" Lucius laughed as he ran one hand through his shining hair. "What did you fight your war FOR? To continue slaving away over burners and lamps?"

Of all the things he did not wish to discuss, his real reasons for fighting the war were last. "There is still work to be done."

"No doubt," Lucius said. His smile curled along the rim of his goblet, his smile reflected in the iridescent surface of his drink. "But there is also play. Surely, there must be something you want to possess. Or someone."

He ought to have said something immediately, shut off the subject. But his own shame, the moment of fear that his desire somehow showed on his skin, held him back. Severus could not deny what Lucius had said; instead he was trapped there, speared with deadly accuracy, as Lucius' smooth words flowed into him:

"We all suffered, during the war. You through your intrigues, I in Azkaban. Every person here tonight – every person on our side, and I suppose on the other – paid dearly for the privilege of still being alive. Those who allied themselves with the Dark Lord are being rewarded for everything they endured. Do we not deserve that? Does not hard work and loyalty deserve some reward?"

All the nights he'd spent, feverishly coming up with cover stories and counter-operations. All the memory spells he'd performed, betraying his conscience to destroy clues absorbed by the innocent. All the times he'd gone to report to Dumbledore and endured the contemptuous sneers of Sirius Black and Nymphadora Tonks and Remus Lupin and every other Order member who thought themselves above him.

"Life is for living, Severus," Lucius continued. "I have a suspicion about you; I don't think you're as much an ascetic as you claim. Perhaps not even as much you think. No, my opinion is that you're still trying to play the hero. Pretending the war's still going on, so that you can keep suffering, keep proving what a brave man you really are." He clapped Severus on the back. "The war is OVER. You don't have anything left to prove. There's a better life available to us now, and it's past time for you to claim your share."

"Yes, you're quite right," Severus said. He told himself he was agreeing only so Lucius would let him go. The image of Hermione, of her slim hands and dark hair, surfaced briefly in his mind. "Past time."

**

Within ten minutes, Severus had managed to extricate himself from the party after having only one drink pressed upon him by the insistent Narcissa. No telling what had been in it, but his mind and body hummed pleasantly as he hurried home. The project they'd been working on lately required many late nights, and if he had not left it too long –

No. When he stepped into his workshop, a few candles were still burning, and Hermione sat at one table, still scratching measurements into a record book with her quill.

She looked up as he entered, her soft hair falling past her shoulder. "You're back earlier than I thought."

"It is rarely difficult to deprive myself of Lucius Malfoy's company," he replied. To his surprise – and perhaps hers – Hermione laughed, then quickly covered her lips with the edge of her quill. Severus said, more softly, "You need not conceal your contempt for him from me, Miss Granger. Nor in any other way – at least where we are in agreement."

"We're in agreement there," she said. Then she blew quickly on the ink, setting it on the paper. The expression on her face then – almost a kiss – worked with the intoxicant in his system to steel his resolve.

He said, "Would you like a drink? You could join me in my study, when you're through."

"I – what?" Hermione hesitated, but only briefly. "I don't take anything as strong as firewhiskey. But if you had some mead –"

"I do." Severus said, hoping this was true. Fortunately, a bottle Rozier had pressed upon him as a gift remained alone in an oaken rack, wax-sealed and slightly dusty. As he carefully opened it, Binks appeared with two glasses, then quickly vanished.

He filled each glass; just as he set the bottle down again, Hermione entered. She was slightly uncertain, which Severus understood; he had never asked her even to have a drink with him before, much less what he was about to ask –

Would he really do it? Could he?

Severus knew his hesitation might overtake him soon – but he took a deep draught of the mead and watched Hermione do the same, her head tilted back, the slow undulation of her throat. When her eyes opened again, she saw him watching him, but she didn't look away. Instead, she simply said, "It's been a long time since I had mead."

"I should imagine," he said. "You've been deprived of luxuries, lately." Hermione ducked her head, agreeing without speaking aloud. The alcohol was already settling in his bloodstream, warming him and making him bold. "Deprived of far too many things, I think."

"It hasn't been easy," she said simply as she took a seat on the long couch. Hermione wasn't given to wallowing in pity. Severus liked that about her. He liked so very much about her.

Now, he thought. Enough hesitation, enough thoughts. An act. "Miss Granger – Hermione – I've been thinking."

She didn't react to the use of her first name, just took another sip of the mead. She murmured, "What about?"

He sat beside her; she didn't move away. Severus resisted the urge to move closer. Not yet, it wasn't time yet, he shouldn't rush --

But then, those were all calculations that belonged to another place and another time, when he had dealt with women who could say no. Hermione – no, Severus reminded himself, she could say no. But she would not. Not if he presented it correctly, not if he made himself entirely clear. Still, a lifetime's uncertainty was difficult to cast aside.

Deliberately, Severus reached out and placed his hand on her shoulder. She didn't turn away, didn't react, just watched him. He said, "As your employer, I can do so little for you. But – were our connection to change – I could help you far more."

"Our connection?" Her voice was faint, but not, Severus thought, surprised.

Perhaps it was the alcohol in his bloodstream. Perhaps it was the slow-acting poison of Lucius Malfoy's words in his mind. Perhaps it was only his own desire. Whatever it was, it allowed Severus to smoothly say the words he had so long denied himself. "I should like you to stay here with me tonight. And after that." He wound a soft curl of her hair around his fingers. "Stay here," he repeated.

For a long moment, there was only silence. Then, at last, she whispered, "Yes."

How could it be as simple as that? Was she mocking him? Other women had. But Hermione did not laugh; she only gazed at his hand on her shoulder, as though she were still convincing herself that the touch was real. "I'd been hoping you would ask me."

She didn't mean desire, of course. She could not. Instead, Hermione meant that she had seen what he had seen, that a position as his mistress would give her a better kind of life than she could expect any other way.

In other words, she had finally learned the art of compromise. Severus had been waiting so long for her to learn that, to make her own choices in a way that would force her to understand his own. And yet, looking down at her, he found that he felt hollow; some of that fire he had admired in her was gone forever.

But that was no more than the way of the world.

Severus did not kiss her, did not even touch her again, until they were in his bedroom, the candles unlit, the dark enfolding them both. He did not need to see her, not yet. Strangely, it seemed too intimate.

It was enough to unwrap her robes, feeling the thin cotton fragile beneath his hands, then her skin – the slope of her shoulder, the curve of her belly. He did not need to know her expression as they kissed for the first time, only to feel her mouth opening beneath his. Severus needed nothing else but this, the freedom to touch her, to have her, to bear her down upon the bed.

He'd thought she might balk, when it came to that last moment – that something of what she'd left behind might hold her back. He had not decided what he would do if she did. But instead Hermione was sweetly compliant, undemanding, gentle and soft and warm. Everything he would have hoped for, everything he'd been sure he would never have.

The next morning, Severus said, "It would be as well if you had a room here. You can't be comfortable in that garret you live in."

If Hermione realized that he'd spied on her in the past, she didn't react. She simply nodded and smiled. "I wouldn't want to be too far away."

It was all just as Lucius had said – so many pleasures, all his to claim.

**

Chapter Text

VII.

 

"Alone tonight, I see," Hermione said, to have something to say.

Remus paused from studying her – which was clearly what he was doing – and nodded. "Firenze has some important things to attend to. Besides, I think I benefit more from your visits than he does."

What was there for Firenze to do within Tartrosgate? Hermione couldn't imagine what went on inside its gates, what stratagems and hierarchies the prisoners employed to distract themselves from starvation and death. She said only, "I benefit from seeing you more than seeing Firenze. So this is – it's fine."

"Your being here means a lot to me, Hermione," Remus said. Something about his tone of voice suggested that he didn't quite mean it – or rather, that he meant something else, besides.

Hermione was past caring what he meant. It seemed like a century since she'd been able to keep down what she ate, or since she'd been able to sleep.

(Since I was in my own bed, a bed that belonged to me, and that I slept in alone every night, instead of –)

She shook off her gloom and managed to smile at him. "I want to see you as often as I can," she said. "I know it's hard for you, Remus. I can't help any other way, but I can do this."

"I appreciate that." Remus studied her carefully, his gray hair soft in the moonlight.

Quite a lot of moonlight, at that. Hermione stared up at the near-full moon in the sky. "One more night?"

Remus shook his head. "Two."

"What do they do, when you change?"

His face was hard. "The guards? Absolutely nothing. They wouldn't care if a werewolf ran amok in Tartrosgate, killing prisoners right and left. I suspect they'd be glad to save the money on feeding them, if you can call the slop we get food." Then his expression softened, perhaps in reaction to the horror Hermione knew she was showing. "Firenze tethers me, before I can transform into a wolf. Stands guard over me all night, just in case; he's strong enough to hold me in check if need be. Before he arrived, the wizards here just had to do their best. They – they didn't always do very well."

He didn't need to say any more; Hermione could see the rest, ghostly reflections in his eyes. For the first time, it struck her how uniquely cruel Remus' affliction was. Lycanthropy did more than weaken him, stigmatize him and age him before his time. It forced him to be violent, even homicidal, and now at last she understood how ironic and terrible that was for such a gentle person.

Gentle. She never used to think of people that way. She never used to realize how much gentleness mattered –

Hermione's eyes filled with tears before she could prevent it. Even as her vision blurred, her eyes going hot and moist, she saw Remus' eyes go wide. "Hermione? What's the matter?"

"I hate to think of you in here," she choked out. Tucking her legs up to her chest, she rested her head on her knees, trying to gain a moment's composure. But curling into a fetal position only seemed to make her cry harder.

Remus waited a few moments to speak; when he did, his voice was softer than she'd ever heard it. "I know that you care about me as a friend," he said. "You've proved that beyond any doubt. But, forgive me – I don't think that's why you're crying."

Shame gripped her in its sweaty fist, making her body shake as she began to cry even harder. Every thought she had – (you're only making it worse for Remus, you're making him upset, and what's so bad about your life, compared to what he has to go through?) – betrayed her as the cheap, worthless soul she'd come to realize she truly was, underneath. Remus kept calling to her, trying to get her to answer her, but she was too overcome.

Finally, when the worst of it had flowed through her, and her turmoil began turning into exhaustion, Hermione was able to lift her head enough to rest her chin on her knees. "I'm sorry," she whispered.

"For God's sake, Hermione, what's wrong? Please tell me." Remus said. His hands were now knotted in the ragged hem of his robes. 'You're not – not ill, or anything?"

"No," she managed to say, wiping her cheeks with the heel of her hand. "It's just – well – are you sure the guards don't eavesdrop on us here?"

"Absolutely sure." Remus' face was as serious as she had ever seen it. "There's no doubt about that. You can tell me anything. From the looks of it, there's a lot you need to get off your chest."

The thought of speaking it aloud shamed Hermione almost past the bearing of it. But then, she'd been enduring it in silence for almost three weeks now, and the silence seemed to be burning her alive. Was Remus the right person to tell? No point in wondering. There wasn't really anyone else left.

Hermione blurted it out as quickly as she could, "I'm Snape's mistress."

Remus, to his credit, didn't betray what had to be the severity of his shock. He said, very slowly. "Oh. I hadn't – oh."

"The spell I've been working on for him – it's a locator spell, enormously powerful, at least in theory. And so I've got to stop him from finishing it, you see? Or at least slow him down as much as I possibly can. To do that, I have to have his complete trust. So – so when I realized that he wanted, well, wanted me, I couldn't push him away." Hermione pulled out a handkerchief and dabbed at her warm, tear-streaked face. "I couldn't say no."

"I understand," Remus said, as if he did. "Hermione, I'm so sorry."

"It's stupid, really – complaining about something like this to you, with all you have to endure –"

"This prison hasn't taken away my ability to care about other people, all right?" Remus said. "I'm still allowed to worry about you. So stop blaming yourself."

The simple kindness almost undid her again; she would have started crying all over again, if she had any tears left in her. Somehow, she managed to smile weakly at him. "Thank you. You've no idea how much it helps, just having someone be sympathetic."

"I didn't realize," Remus said. "I could tell something had been troubling you, but I never thought of this. I wouldn't have expected it of Severus."

Hermione thought sourly that she now knew Snape far better than Remus ever had, but she was gulping back the last of her crying jag, unable to speak.

Remus continued, "He's not – unkind to you? If he's hurting you –" The warning went unspoken, but the buried rage in Remus' voice warmed and gratified her.

"No, no, it's not that." Hermione went through her memories in as much detail as she could stand. "He's not cruel, or violent, or any of the other things I was afraid he would be. He – he lets me pretend that it's mutual, what happens between us. Or maybe he pretends it is. So he would never strike me, or force me to do something I – well, he wouldn't. He's even set me up as mistress of his household. So now I can order around the house-elf, if I lose the very last of my pride." She ran one hand through her hair, trying to calm herself. "All he asks is to come to my bed every night. That's all."

They were quiet together for a while, and Hermione was surprised how comforting the silence was. She hadn't realized how much of the burden she carried was the secrecy; with Remus there to know, and to share the weight, she felt restored, at least in part. Instead of speaking, or even worrying, she let herself relax and consider the night around them: owls hooting, the soft spring leaves whirring in the breeze, the soft cooing of the newborn baby a few feet away, being shown to its papa for the very first time.

Finally, Remus said, "I trust you to know what you have to do and what you don't. But whatever you choose – don't let it destroy you, Hermione."

"How do I do that?" Her words were faint, even to her ears.

Remus, however, became even more intent. "You remind yourself that you are fighting a battle worth fighting. That you're fighting it with every weapon you have, with everything that you are. That you're going to make a difference."

Hermione nodded tiredly. "I wish I could believe that."

"Believe it."

Remus' voice was so strong, so bold, that it made her sit upright and stare at him. Despite his haggard appearance, at that moment he no longer looked like a wasting prisoner of Tartrosgate. He looked like the professor and authority figure he had been – no, not even that, she decided. Remus looked once again like a warrior of the Order of the Phoenix. The gleam in his eyes, the sinews in his fist, the proud lift of his chin –

She whispered, "What aren't you telling me?"

He hesitated, then said, "I'm keeping my silence for a reason, Hermione. I must ask you to trust me."

Hermione stamped her feet on the ground, all her own troubles forgotten in the wild rush of curiosity. "You said they weren't listening to us!"

"They aren't eavesdropping, no. But they have other ways of spying, and if you know too much, and you're in the wrong place –" He trailed off, but she could fill in the rest. A good Legilemens could pry open her mind without a second thought. Remus continued, "More goes on within Tartrosgate than Voldemort's people would like to think. And soon, that may be true outside Tartrosgate as well."

She asked the only question she could think of. "Are you – is this something to do with Luna's group? The Neville faction?"

If there was a pitying gleam in his eye, Remus concealed it quickly. "No. It's nothing to do with them, and I'd prefer you didn't mention it in their presence."

"Of course not." Hermione took a deep breath, astonished how much better she felt already. Remus had done more than hear her sorrows; he had made her feel strong again, even powerful. Something not unlike her old self-confidence flickered at the edges of her mind. "Thank you for hearing me."

Remus smiled. "Thank you for being here."

**

VIII.

 

"I won't be long," Hermione had said.

Severus had opened his mouth to tell her not to go – it rankled, the very idea of her making visits to see Remus Lupin. What on earth did she care about a monster who had risked her life and others to play at being a schoolteacher for a year?

But she looked so serious, so intent. Severus meant for her to know the new parameters of her life at Snape Manor – the new responsibilities, he meant, of the mistress of the house -- but he suspected this was not the moment to make a point.

"Very well," he replied easily, enjoying her ill-concealed surprise. "Binks will have dinner ready for you."

Hermione actually smiled at him for a moment at that, which made Severus think the concession might well have been worth it. Besides, he told himself as she drew on her cloak and went out the door, her absence gave him time for some overdue exploration.

After the door shut behind her, Severus continued reading for ten minutes, scanning the Daily Prophet with as much attention as he ever gave it, sipping his port. But when the grandfather clock's brass hands finally slid into position, he rose and went upstairs into Hermione's room.

He'd designated one of the guest rooms as hers; just as well, as he never had guests. Severus thought it might put her more at ease. Although he visited her there nearly every night, he often went back to his own chamber to sleep. This had given him little chance to – as he thought of it – exercise some level of security.

A convenient lie, of course. He suspected Hermione no longer, and might have as easily accused Lucius Malfoy of being one of the hapless followers of Neville Longbottom. The truth Severus knew, and refused to fully acknowledge, was he wanted to know Hermione more deeply – to know the parts of herself that she still kept hidden. For a man who kept so many secrets of his own, Severus still had little patience with the secrecy of others.

He sat on the bed in her room and slowly slid open the drawer of the bedside table. She owned so few things – a scarf and gloves that looked (badly) handmade, a few knutstore novels that couldn't possibly challenge her mind, and – ah. Pictures, framed for display, but hidden in a drawer.

The first photograph was no more or less than Severus might have expecting: snickering schoolchildren, as if he hadn't seen enough of those in his lifetime already. It did jar him that one of them was Harry Potter; he sat for a few moments studying the boy, watching him tease a redheaded girl almost past her endurance.

Just like your father, Severus thought, his lip curling as he stared at the spectacled boy. Always impatient. Always so sure you knew best. If you'd listened to anyone, anyone at all, for ten minutes together in your short life –

Severus set the picture down. He didn't let himself wonder what would have been. It was the only way to remain sane.

The next picture, however, nearly undid whatever sanity he had remaining: Hermione stood in another man's embrace – no, a boy's. One of those Weasley brats – Ron, was it? Yes, that was the boy. No talent for potions whatsoever.

Hermione looked up at Ron with a light in her eyes that Severus had never seen. She is beautiful, he thought abstractly, trying to ignore the heat of envy flaring inside him. In the photo, she was still a girl, but old enough that she looked like herself.

Only healthier, and happy, and glowing with love. Just as Ron Weasley was himself.

Jealousy knotted itself more and more tightly in Severus' heart – then relaxed instantly. Ron Weasley was dead. Come to think of it, none of the Weasleys had survived the war, save for that bootlicker Percy.

The boy belonged to Before. He was no more Severus' concern than anything else of the life he'd left behind. In time, Hermione would see that Ron was no longer her concern, either.

Severus became more sure of his conviction once Hermione returned home.

He was back downstairs, secure in the knowledge that all her possessions were precisely as she'd left them, enjoying a second glass of port. Hermione hurried through the door – bounded, more like, a spring in her step and a flush in her cheeks that seemed to belong to more than the night air. "H'lo," she said, smiling at him easily. "See? I wasn't late."

"No," Severus said, observing carefully the changes in her. She looked happier than she had in a long time – since before he'd brought her to live with him, he was forced to admit. "Made it well before curfew. You must've run the whole way."

"Don't know WHY they restrict broomstick travel; it's silly to do it for everyone everywhere." Hermione plopped down into the chair next to his, somehow managing to help herself to a slice of cheese and begin wriggling out of her cloak all at once. "You'd think they'd shut down the Floo Network before taking away everyone's broomsticks."

"The Floo Network can be monitored, and its pathways are defined," Severus said, watching Hermione as he spoke. She looked so much more at ease, so unworried – the way he'd wanted her to look. "Broomsticks offer complete freedom of movement, and that is a thing of the past."

Hermione made a face, then nodded as Severus gestured to the port bottle. While he poured, she said, "But then at least people could play Quidditch, and people being what they are, they'd probably forget everything else if they had some sport again."

Severus raised an eyebrow. "You think they would forget the Dark Lord's rule if they could play Quidditch?"

"Remind me to tell you something a famous Muggle once said about the opiate of the masses." As the house-elf scurried up for the cloak, Hermione instantly brightened. "Why, thank you, Binks! How has your day been?"

While Binks made awkward conversation, Severus breathed in deeply, allowed himself a slight smile. He liked Hermione better this way: at ease, chatting happily, speaking with him as – as a peer, he thought. She wasn't like him, he realized; the same connections to the past that devastated him seemed to nourish her. For the time being, she still needed them, and he would do best not to interfere. When they were alone again, he handed her some port and said, "Why not tell me now? About this Muggle you spoke of."

"You want me to tell you about Karl Marx?" Hermione said. When he nodded, she began to laugh. Severus didn't know why, but he liked it.

**

Their worlds came together only very slowly. Severus decided he liked it best that way – it added a kind of suspense. He never knew what Hermione would tell him next, or what she would ask. The only constants were that she brightened after her Tartrosgate visits, and that she smiled where she had frowned, ate better, slept more soundly at his side.

Curiosity was their one shared virtue, and he learned quickly that it was by far the best way to lower Hermione's guard. Although her work on the locator potion was still maddeningly slow, it was thorough; introducing her to new ideas and ingredients was a particular delight. Sometimes, her questions so distracted them that they would end up spending hours working on another potion altogether. Severus knew that he was destined to serve the Dark Lord until the end of his days, but he didn't mind making Voldemort wait.

More surprising was his own curiosity about the Muggle world; while it had existed, Severus had had no use for it whatsoever, but now that it was only a part of history, he found himself intrigued by Hermione's tales of where and how she had grown up.

"So they understood all along that the Queen was their ruler in name only?" he said to her one night during dinner. "It was common knowledge that she was only a figurehead?"

"You make it sound so sinister," Hermione replied. "Honestly, it wasn't news to anyone, not since Queen Victoria, anyway, and that was a hundred years back."

"Her face was on all the Muggle money in Britain," Severus said. He'd had to travel on Muggle transport occasionally, during his days as a spy. "Every coin, every bill. You don't think that was an attempt at deception?"

"The Queen – she held a symbolic – the nation --" Hermione shook her head. "It all sounds so much more mad when I try to explain it out loud."

"Muggles always do."

"Right, then." She mock-scowled at him. "I'll concede that the Muggle world is more insane – I mean, was more insane – if you can explain one thing to me."

Severus gestured expansively. "Anything at all, my dear."

If she noticed the endearment, she gave no sign. "The money. What counting system could wizards possibly have used when they designed your monetary system? It's all irregular, and it makes the math nearly impossible."

"It makes perfect sense," he scoffed.

"Twenty-nine knuts to a sickle? Seventeen sickles to a galleon?" Hermione's smile was becoming even broader. "Come on, then. If it makes such perfect sense, explain it."

Sometimes Hermione made him look at his own world differently, but he didn't enjoy that nearly so much.

No, his principal pleasure was in watching Hermione unfold, relax, blossom back slowly into life. She had a vitality now that went deeper than her improved health and status, a luster that Severus knew arose from her time with him. Her evident satisfaction made him feel generous, and filled him with pride.

Not since the unfortunate purchase of his home had he used Voldemort's gold for anything but necessities. Now, spending it was a pleasure. Hermione never asked for anything, which added to his enjoyment because he was able to surprise her. Severus was not indiscriminate with his gifts – that was vulgar, not to mention thoughtless. But from time to time he would come home with books, or good wine, or sweets. She was always profusely thankful, but she resisted some of his other offers; as yet, she'd still declined to go and purchase new robes.

"What do I need those for?" she'd say. "It's just the three of us here, and you and Binks are used to me as I am, aren't you?"

Severus rather liked the idea of her wanting to remain in their home, all the time, but he knew that she was probably merely being modest. After their second month together, he therefore approached the matter from a different angle.

"Twelfth Night!" she'd squealed when he brought home the tickets. He thought she actually skipped a bit as she grabbed them in her hands. "I love Twelfth Night, even though I've never seen it performed, just the film back when they had films. And of course I've read it. I can't believe you like Shakespeare!"

"I prefer reading the plays to seeing them performed," Severus said. "But I thought it might make a change of pace."

Hermione was bouncing on her toes. "I thought you didn't know anything about Muggles."

"You honestly thought Shakespeare was a Muggle?"

She went to that play without getting new robes or, so far as he could tell, noticing that her old attire was dramatically out of step. But he had a feeling that, the next time he braced himself to endure a theatrical performance, he would be rewarded by the sight of Hermione in something brighter, newer, and more feminine.

Severus knew that she was so nearly his. But he did not forget that she did not belong to him entirely. Not yet. He was forcibly reminded of that the evening that they finally finished the locator potion.

He went into his workshop to check on that day's formulation, with low expectations. Hermione had introduced a radically different ratio of onyx to venom, and though he considered her theory sound, he thought it likely they would be refining that ratio for some time to come.

But when he held up the flask of translucent gray-blue fluid, Severus saw immediately that no crystals had formed, that the liquid was perfectly clear and unclouded. He tapped the glass experimentally; a soft shimmer of light played across the potion's surface, then faded.

"Yes," he said quietly. "Incendio." One of the burners sprang to life, and Severus held the flask over it. Exposed to heat, the potion turned deep metallic silver, then almost instantly reverted to its original color when he pulled it away.

Hermione put her head through the door. "Work's done for the day, you know."

"You are more correct than you know." Severus held up the potion. "Success."

"Success?" she stared at him, disbelieving, as well she might be.

"Your guess today has proved to be inspired," Severus said. "Of course, the potion's full efficacy can only be tested by the Dark Lord himself. But it is time to take it to him."

Her face was pale, and Severus could see her gripping the doorjamb with white-knuckled hands. "It's – it's done?"

"We may have a few refinements yet," he replied as he carefully set the potion down. "But I believe we can consider our collaboration near an end." She was so very still, and she stared at him with dark, wounded eyes. Severus reviewed what he had said. "I meant, of course, our collaboration on this potion. Your status here – that will not change."

Hermione did not appear to be relieved. "So we're handing it over, then," she said. "We're giving it to Voldemort."

"Certainly." Severus' eyes narrowed. "You have always known this."

"Yes. I've always known." Hermione was attempting to collect herself, but she did a poor job of it. The sight of her reluctance infuriated Severus beyond any reason.

"Do not even think that you have the right to claim surprise or even dismay." She jumped at the sound of his voice, which was harsh and cold even to his own ears, but he could not stop. "You were fully informed. You have made your own choices. Are you going to whine and cry about them now, like a child?"

She stammered, "I'm not – I mean, I wasn't –"

"There is no place – no place at all – in this world for regrets." Severus came closer to her, closed his hand tightly over her wrist. She winced as he leaned in and whispered, "You've always had a good memory. Don't let it be the death of you. Accept what we have done. What you have done."

Her face was stricken, and too late Severus realized how tightly he was clutching her arm. He released her and watched her stumble backwards into the dark of the hall. More steadily, he said, "Go upstairs. I'll join you later."

Hermione turned and hurried – almost ran – to the stairwell.

He looked back into his workshop. In the dim lights of the lamps, he could still see the locator-spell potion, one bottle among hundreds, one potion among dozens. The answer to Lord Voldemort's latest request, his newest desire.

What would he ask next?

No point in such questions. No point in asking about right or wrong. Severus dimmed the lamps and went upstairs to his mistress' bed, where she would be waiting, because he had commanded it.

**

Chapter Text

That bastard, she fumed. That utter and complete bastard.

Hermione stripped off her clothing angrily, throwing each garment to the floor, not minding where it fell. As she tugged the bands from her hair, she caught of glimpse of her face in the mirror; even in the soft light, she looked harsh. Older.

Her anger wasn't just directed at Snape, but at herself. How could she have had such a stupid bit of luck? She was the one who'd finished that potion, not Snape. If she hadn't had the good sense to deliberately pollute the potion, she might have at least remembered to check on her own work. If only she had checked, she'd have known the correct ratio instantly. Who knows how much time she could have bought, if only she'd been able to conceal this knowledge from him?

If only, if only. Hermione was sick unto death of "if only."

Soon Snape would come upstairs, crawl into her bed and expect her obedience. Never had she hated the idea of making love to him more strongly. Her skin was flushing hot and cold at the thought of it, her stomach churning –

Well, then, she thought, in a sudden burst of calm – why not leave?

She had done what she'd done for a purpose: to delay the completion of the potion. Although she'd done her best, she could do no more. Her role as Snape's mistress was no longer necessary. So why not walk out the door? For all his possessiveness, Hermione did not believe Snape would stop her, not if she really meant to go.

No sooner had she imagined that departure than her mind crowded full of reasons against it. Snape had said that they might still have to refine the potion, hadn't he? Even if she could only buy the resistance another few days, those might be days they could use – to come up with a counter-spell, maybe –

Yes! A counter-spell! Relief washed over her, warm and blissfully sweet. Why hadn't she thought of it before? Nobody else in the world, save for Snape himself, knew the potion's properties as she did. With a little work, some study, some thought, Hermione could devise a way of confusing the spell's workings. It might not work – but it might. It might.

Skin tingling with anticipation, her mind alive with thought, Hermione slipped between the sheets almost without noticing what she was doing, or how cool the cotton was against her bare skin. Ingredients flashed in her memory, each a kind of beacon. Her lips moved in a silent litany: Topaz occludes onyx. Cinnabar negates bat's wing. Water for clarity. Blood for strength.

She was almost startled with Snape entered the room. When their eyes met, rage flared inside her anew. Oh, of course, she thought. He's here to tell me what to do. Bastard.

But her anger mingled curiously with her excitement about the counter-spell, creating a strange, flickering heat in her mind. Hermione had never watched Snape undress before – she preferred to busy herself with something, pretend a distraction – but she watched him now.

We do what we can, she thought abstractly, with what we're given.

The energy inside her sparked and took on an existence of its own, creating a will inside her that seemed to respond independently of her mind. When his hands touched her, for the first time she took them, guided them where she wanted him to go. Hermione heard her voice speaking – giving orders, even, making commands – as if it belonged to someone else. "Slower," she said. "And here – right here –"

He obeyed her. Her mind was not her own, nor her voice, nor her will – but the sensations she felt, the wildly building pleasure of it, that belonged to her -- to her and to no one else.

Desire shot through her, this way and that, careening off her skin, against her bone, vibrating down to her marrow, up to her skull. As if at a great distance, she could hear Snape; he was enjoying this too, and she didn't care. All that mattered was her own quickening heartbeat, her own pleasure cascading through her. When at last she came, crying out so that it echoed in their bedchamber, Hermione felt as though the rest of the world had gone black and faded away.

Afterwards, Snape lay next to her, stroking her hair, gazing at her as though he had never seen her before. Hermione barely noticed him; her body was sinking deeply into the warmth of spent passion, letting it enfold and soothe her.

"Not so shy anymore," Snape said.

"No. Not anymore." Had he really thought her shy, all this time? She felt only a dim sense of gratitude that he made so many of her explanations for her.

He brushed a fingertip against her cheek. "You make me feel young."

"You make me feel wise," she said, without ever considering that it was true. She was asleep almost before the words were spoken.

**

The next week was a blur of activity – working with Snape to refine the potion by day, grabbing whatever moments of privacy she had to work on a counter-spell, along with an obscuring potion. Knowing as little of the locator spell as she did, this was difficult and uncertain work, but Hermione kept after it. She was driven by an unquenchable energy, by a sense of purpose she hadn't known since Harry was still alive.

She could think that – think those words, "since Harry was alive" – without it hurting any longer. Hermione had never thought that day would come.

And, at long last, her situation did not seem so terrible to her. When she tried to find an analogy for it, Hermione decided that it was not unlike a child who stares at a picture of a vase, only to realize that it also reveals two faces. The more desperate side of her place in Snape Manor seemed to have faded into the background, while the benefits stood out in sharper relief. She realized, as she hadn't before, how much she enjoyed her work – if nothing else, she'd at least been able to use her mind again, a pleasure that had been denied her for too long.

Finally, it was amazing what you could put up with when you weren't hungry all the time. As spying missions went, Hermione thought, she hadn't done so badly.

So it was with a light heart that she set out for Gladrags one afternoon, to finally get herself some new robes. Snape had asked her yet again, and they did have that performance of "The Tales of Hoffman" coming up; she felt comfortable wearing her old things to a play, but somehow, an opera seemed so much more grand.

After everything she'd done and been through, didn't she deserve new robes at least?

Hermione saw the ones she wanted immediately, but knew just by the cut of the garment, the sheen of the silk, that the price was expensive. Be sensible, she thought. You only need to look presentable, not – not stunning or anything.

But they were so beautiful – with embroidery at the sleeves and hem, in that soft cornflower blue – and it wasn't as if it came out of her wages. Snape had said to put it to his account, hadn't he?

You oughtn't to take advantage of him, she scolded herself. Then the absurdity of those words hit her; giggling, Hermione grabbed the robes and darted into the changing room.

Just the act of slipping the robes over her body felt different from anything Hermione had ever known before; the seams seemed to have been shaped to her body, and the silk was impossibly soft. The robes settled around her like a cool cloud, outlining her perfectly. Nothing – not the harsh light of the changing room, not the shrill grousing of another shopper nearby, not her own mussed hair and bare feet – could disguise the fact that these were beautiful robes. Or that she was beautiful in them.

Hermione walked from the changing room to the larger mirrors, arced in a semi-circle at the far end of the store. One of them said, "That blue is just perfect for your eyes!" The others murmured agreement. Even though Hermione was well aware of the Flattery Charms put on such things, she couldn't help smiling. One hand came up, twirled in a loose lock of hair.

Who are you flirting with? she thought, gazing at her pretty reflection. She didn't need an answer.

The too-friendly saleswitch bustled up to her. "Will you be taking that one, dear? It's quite right for you, you know."

"Yes," Hermione said. How bold it felt, yet how refreshing, just to say it: "I'll have this one. Put it down to Severus Snape." As the witch hurried off to do that, Hermione took a few more minutes to turn back and forth, unable to look away from her own lovely reflection.

"This," a male voice drawled, "beats everything I've ever dreamt of."

Hermione whirled around, and her blood turned icy as she saw Draco Malfoy smirking at her. She'd been so engrossed in her appearance that she hadn't even noticed him walking up behind.

"I did think today would be a bore, having to go on yet another shopping trip with Pansy," Draco continued, pacing slowly around her. Too late, Hermione remembered the shrill voice she'd overhead in the dressing room but failed to recognize. "Been trying to amuse myself picking out cloak pins in the menswear area, which of course lasted all of about four minutes. But then whom should I see but you? Granger, I must tell you, this makes my day. My month. My year."

She found her tongue. "If you're so desperate for amusement that you get it visiting with someone who loathes you, then you're to be pitied, Malfoy."

Draco smirked even more. "You're hardly one to talk about being pitied anymore. Or about desperation, I'd say." He arched one platinum eyebrow. "Really, Granger. Severus Snape?"

Her stomach twisted. Her cheeks burned. Hermione wanted to duck her head or look away, but that would be admitting defeat. She just kept staring at Draco Malfoy's smug face, watching his grin, unable to speak a word.

"I would've thought you'd starve first," he said. "No matter how obnoxious and pretentious you were, I always thought that at least you had some pride in yourself. Suppose I was wrong on that score."

The potion, she reminded herself. The mission. You're doing what you're doing for a reason, a better reason than Draco's ever had for anything he's done. As calmly as she could manage, Hermione said, "I'm happy where I am."

"Happy? With SNAPE?" Draco cackled with glee. "What is it about him that drives you wild, then? The greasy hair? The hook nose? The pleasant personality? Oh, no doubt he's swept you right off your feet."

Hermione longed to shout the truth at Draco, but she wasn't angry enough to make such a disastrous slip. For some reason, just the knowledge of her true purpose wasn't enough to sustain her; she still felt hot and weak and sick. She forced out a retort: "I'd have him before I'd have you any day."

"It's not a choice you'd ever be called upon to make, Granger," Draco replied smoothly. "You see, I don't keep a mistress. It's – common."

"Draco?" Pansy whined from within the dressing rooms. "Are you out there? Find that stupid saleswoman and get her to help me."

Rolling his eyes, Draco said, "Duty calls. Do excuse me."

"Gladly," Hermione said, starting toward the dressing rooms. But Draco was still staring at her, and she narrowed her eyes. "What?"

"I was just thinking – you really do look ravishing in those robes." Draco cocked his head, mock-wistfully. "If only Weasley could see you now."

She could still hear Draco's laughter long after she'd shut the dressing-room door.

**

"Are you mad?" Luna whispered, crouching behind the shrubs. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm here because it's your house," Hermione replied, trying her best to remain calm. "Because it's your house, you don't look suspicious UNLESS you go hiding behind the hedge. Just stand up, all right?"

Luna looked quickly around her large, well-kept garden, as if expecting Voldemort's minions to drop from the larches. Finally, she breathed out and relaxed. "Why did you come here? Is it an emergency?"

"Very near one, yes." Hermione folded her arms, trying very hard to ignore the crackle of her shopping bag, with the now-hated blue robes – the symbol of her servitude – folded within. "Snape has – Snape and I have completed the spell. There's nothing but the final touches, now. I believe Snape's presenting it to Voldemort soon."

When Luna gasped, Hermione felt some grim satisfaction that the severity of the situation was getting through. "It's ready," Luna whispered. "I guess I thought this day wouldn't really come, but it has."

"Don't panic," Hermione said. She held on ever more tightly to her shaken sense of purpose; now she needed it more than ever, and now was just the time to put it into more active effect. "I've been working on a counter-spell – a specific spell would be hard for me to come up with, but something very general ought to work if I have the perfect counteracting potion, and I think I'm fairly close to that."

"Counteracting potion?" Luna smiled. "Good idea. That way we can stop Voldemort from using it, but still use it ourselves. You're brilliant, Hermione!"

The praise was warming, but Hermione kept herself focused. "You mean – your group wants to try and use the spell after all?"

Luna nodded, her wispy blonde hair drifting in the afternoon breeze. "We always knew we couldn't leave Neville in Voldemort's hands forever. He is the True Son of the Prophecy. He is our reason for hope."

Hermione had no use for the dogma of the converted, nor for the unfocused gleam in Luna's eyes. She tried to pull Luna back to hard realities: "I thought you'd decided a rescue mission was too risky."

"Just running in unprepared would have been too risky," Luna admitted. "But even Voldemort's defenses aren't perfect. We just need to be prepared. Once we discover the location of Azkaban, we'll be able to evaluate the situation better. Form a real plan of attack."

Preparation. Evaluation. These were concepts Hermione found soothingly familiar, if somewhat unexpected coming from Luna Lovegood. She took a deep breath and felt some of the clawed pain of shame fade from her for the first time since she'd seen Draco Malfoy at Gladrags. "I can bring you a sample of the potion for the locator spell and instructions for recreating it very soon. It shouldn't take me more than a day or so to get the opportunity to put that together."

Luna beamed. "Wonderful! I'll tell the others. That way we can get started on planning our trip to Greenland."

Hermione knew, very surely, that she shouldn't ask. That everything would seem so much better if she just didn't ask. But she heard herself saying, slowly, "Greenland?"

"That's the latest reported location of the Crumple-Horned Snorkacks," Luna replied. After a few moments of silence, Luna cocked her head and said, "Don't tell me you still don't believe in them?"

"You – still do believe in them?" Hermione was trying to smile politely, but she had a feeling that the look on her face was anything but pleasant.

Luna rolled her eyes. "There's been another wave of sightings reported in the Quibbler just this last month! If one-tenth of what legends say about their powers is true, well, we won't have any trouble getting past the Azkaban guards. Not with Snorkacks on our side."

Slapping Luna would not be enough. No, Hermione wanted to scratch her eyes out, hurt her, even kill her, and she'd never wanted to kill anyone or anything besides Lord Voldemort in her life. But as soon as the rage was on her, it dissolved into something smaller and sadder and gray.

The people Hermione had called her allies were fools. The mission she'd invented for herself was an illusion. Everything she'd done – everything she'd become – was for nothing. Nothing at all.

"Hermione? Are you all right?"

Hermione stared down at her useless hands. She had only one thing to show for the past three months of her life – a blue silk robe that she now hated. Nothing else. "I'm fine," she said quietly. "I'm absolutely fine."

**

X.

 

The Ministry of Magic did not hide behind false storefronts any longer.

Severus considered that only appropriate; he'd always despised the trickery necessary to avoid troubling the mental repose of Muggles. But he would never have wanted the replacement to be something so grossly grandiose: obsidian steps; high columns carved with runic symbols of power and death; the jeweled statue of the serpent that crowned the edifice, its ruby eyes staring out across Voldemort's London.

He had trouble walking through the heavy oak doors – and he was welcome there. But that was as close as Severus came to imagining the feelings of the thousands who had been dragged through on their way to quick, predetermined trials. Such speculation had lost its ability to torment him years before.

As he walked through the corridors, most of those there – from high-ranking officials to the lowliest guard – recognized him. Some acknowledged him with a nod or even a slight bow. Others, mostly those of lower rank, held themselves up straighter, as if hoping to win his approval, or at least avoid his disapproval. Severus accepted it as his due, no more. After all his years of longing for the trappings of power, Severus had found that they palled in a fairly short period of time.

At least, they had for him. For others, apparently, they never lost value.

Even Severus Snape, hero of the realm, had to be searched before entering the Dark Lord's chambers. He stood before the golden doors, singularly unimpressed – gold was far too malleable to hold protective enchantments for long – as he answered the guards' questions and let their hands pat at his sleeves.

When the doors swung open, he stepped inside, bracing himself for whatever he might find inside. Sometimes he'd found prisoners after their interrogations had ended, or what remained of them. More terribly, once, he'd been expected to remain in the room while an interrogation ended. The Dark Lord had not noticed the Numbing Charm Severus had muttered beneath his breath, but such a risk could not be taken again.

This time, however, Severus found only the Dark Lord, seated at his desk, looking for all the world like a scholar at study.

"Severus Snape," Lord Voldemort said, rising as though Severus were an unexpected guest, not a servant duly summoned. The Dark Lord's face had grown more terrible during his years in power, not least because it looked more human. "I have long expected you."

"Forgive the delays, my Lord," Severus said silkily. "When you test the potion, I believe you will find the results well worth the time spent. We await only final refinements. The precision this potion will add should be accurate beyond any previous refinements."

The Dark Lord's white hand, his fingers still thin enough to show the bones, closed, spiderlike, around the vial of potion. He held the vial up to a nearby lamp and swirled it slowly, like a gourmet testing his wine. "This is not all, surely?"

"More is ready, and more can be made quickly. Only the derivation of the formula was time-consuming. The potion itself can be brewed in a day."

"Splendid." The Dark Lord smiled his ghastly smile. "You have served me well, Severus. More and more, it becomes clear to me how – meaningless – your lapse in solidarity truly was."

Severus remembered himself as a young man: sick with guilt, shaking with fear, choking out a confession that meant worse than death -- while waiting to see disgust in Albus Dumbledore's eyes. Instead he had seen only understanding, and in that moment he'd thought he had found not death but life. He had been very young. "Meaningless," Severus repeated.

Nodding, the Dark Lord took a seat in the high-backed, throne-like chair before his fireplace. Though it was a fine June afternoon, the room had a distinct chill, one the greenish flames did little to change. "After the incident at Godric's Hollow, the faith of my followers was shaken. They denied me, denied their own true selves. At the time it outraged me. But now that enough time has passed, I see the prudence of it."

This was beyond belief. Severus let no sign of fear or uncertainty show on his face, and began delving into the mental patterns that aided his Occlumency. For some unfathomable reason, the Dark Lord was suspicious – not of himself, Severus thought, so much as in general. Although Severus had very little to hide from Voldemort any longer, he did not mean to reveal anything unless and until he understood the Dark Lord's purpose.

"You are too forgiving, my Lord," Severus said. "We were weak. We did not yet understand your full glory, though we had been given reason to see. The only credit we deserve – and it is not much – is that of recognizing our own folly."

The Dark Lord did not turn to him, only continued to stare into the flames. "Your folly, you call it. Your belief that our cause to restore purity to the wizarding world was lost forever."

"You were our leader," Severus replied. "Without you, we were nothing."

"Any movement depends so much upon the man." The Dark Lord steepled his hands, frowning deeply. "You might have fought without me."

"We would have been doomed to fail."

"Yes," the Dark Lord replied easily. "Still – you could have fought on. A few did. But you would agree that our great cause fell and then rose on the life of just one man."

Severus kept trying to calculate what the Dark Lord could mean. It sounded, on one level, as though he were merely inveigling flattery, which the Dark Lord was not above. But Severus suspected something more significant – though he still could not determine what. "I do agree, my Lord. The cause returned to life and strength when you did."

"I am glad that you see it as I do." The Dark Lord appeared anything but glad; he was scowling now, even as he lifted the vial of potion. Severus could see the reflection of the flames in the glass, the fire rendered blue by the liquid within. "For it is you who have given me the power to stop history from repeating itself – and far more distastefully, this time."

"My Lord?" Severus wished violently for any Legilemens ability. There were so many moments like this, when the Dark Lord's plans were beyond his reach.

"Return here three nights from now," the Dark Lord said, by way of answer. Severus calculated the timing: a new moon, a vital night for the performance of delicate spells. "I am gathering several wizards together to assist me. Only the most powerful and trusted."

By rote, Severus said, "Thank you, my Lord."

"We will try your new potion with my new spell. And then, if we are very fortunate, and if your potion works as brilliantly as you claim it will –"

The pause was Severus' cue; resisting the urge to grind his teeth, Severus asked, "Then what will happen?"

"So far as the rest of the world will ever know," Voldemort replied, "nothing at all. All will be as it was, and as it ever shall be."

**

As he made his way home, Severus replayed the conversation in his mind again and again, hoping to understand Voldemort more fully. Although no particulars made themselves clear, one fact stood out in greater relief the longer Severus considered it:

Voldemort believed that the potion and the locator spell would be of significant value, not just in hunting down his enemies but also in maintaining the strength of his rule.

This was almost more than Severus could believe. Voldemort's power over the world was now as close to absolute as even the Dark Lord's most ardent followers could ever have wished. After the terrible Battle of Samhain – supposedly celebrated now as the Victory of Samhain – the Death Eaters' grasp had been unshakeable.

Everything Severus had done since that day, he had done under the belief that Voldemort's victory had been complete and final from that moment. And now, Voldemort was suggesting that this was simply not true.

The potion, the locator spell – Severus had thought they would be used to find the last pitiful remnants of a resistance movement. Perhaps it would even result in the martyrdom of those pathetic wretches who worshipped Neville Longbottom and, in Severus' opinion, had clearly never met him. But now that he could see the lives that would be lost more vividly – now that Severus knew those who would die were those who might actually have the power to strike a real blow to Voldemort –

You must not think such things, he told himself. You know his power. You know the reality that governs the world now. You cannot afford to doubt that now.

And yet it was doubt that settled over him, heavier and heavier, slowing his steps as he walked home in the sunset.

Severus did not acknowledge Binks as she managed the door for him and took his cloak. He had developed a habit of talking with Hermione every evening before dinner, but he could not bear the idea of facing her now. He decided to go to the conservatory for the simple reason that he never went there, and believed Hermione didn't either. It would provide him with some silence, a chance to try and settle his volatile thoughts.

When he opened the door, however, he saw Hermione sitting on a bench, crying.

"Oh," she choked out, putting her handkerchief to her face. "Oh, I'm sorry, I'll go –"

"No, I – I should –" Severus' first urge was to flee both from her presence and her misery. She had showed him so little real emotion, and he had preferred it that way. But the memory of what she had shown him – her enthusiasm for a tricky mental problem, her delight at the theatre, her passion in bed – made him stay. Besides, in her own despair, she wouldn't notice his reaction. "What's wrong?"

Hermione sniffled and did a poor job of not looking surprised that he'd asked. "It's nothing. Nothing at all." Her own words made her face crumple in misery, but she did not sob again.

Carefully, Severus settled himself on the bench beside her. "You needn't tell me if you don't wish it."

"It's complicated," she began, then she laughed at herself as she dabbed at her cheeks. "No, it isn't, not really. I just –" Hermione looked very vulnerable, very young, as she finally whispered, "I miss Harry."

As though anyone could miss such a rude, arrogant, paranoid –

Severus quickly tempered his personal reaction. He did not think much of Hermione's choice of friends, but he suspected that she meant more than missing Harry Potter, the person. She meant the world before, a world that contained so many more people and choices, so much more hope.

She also meant a world that contained Ron Weasley, but Severus pushed his jealousy aside. Time to contemplate what that meant later. For now, he only took Hermione's hand in his own.

When she looked up at him, confused, he said only, "So much would be different."

She began sobbing once more, but she squeezed his hand and nodded. He'd understood her, then. Severus found that fact both exhilarating and somewhat frightening.

He drew her to his shoulder and put an arm around her; he was unused to holding her outside of the bedroom, or to giving comfort to anyone, and he knew that he was embracing her very awkwardly. It was a long time before she settled her head against his chest and began to relax.

After many minutes, she said, in a tear-thick voice, "I mustn't let myself do that."

"Do what?"

"Look back," she replied. Hermione sounded far older, less like the girl she had been than ever before. "Let myself wonder what would be."

"You'll learn how to stop," Severus said. "There are – walls you build, within the mind. They become stronger, in time."

Hermione murmured, "You'll teach me how."

"Yes." He cradled her head in his hands, willing his old resolve to flow back into him, and from him into her. "We won't look back."

**

Chapter Text

XI.

 

The next evening, Hermione had planned to visit Remus in Tartrosgate; for the first time ever, she found herself wondering whether or not to go. Before, her talks with him had sustained and comforted her. Now, it seemed like just one more way to torture herself. From that point on, she had determined to live her life by a simple maxim: What's past is past.

Her memory of Remus' face – gaunt, crowned with silvery hair – was enough to make her set out for the prison camp anyway. She wasn't the only person whose feelings mattered, and even the depth of her present misery couldn't erase her knowledge that Remus still relied upon their time together.

But it was duty, not hope, that drove her on.

Though the summer days were already sticky and warm, the evening was comfortable, and Hermione realized with a sort of dulled amazement that Tartrosgate no longer seemed so horrible to her any longer. As she waited with the others – an almost entirely different group of visitors by now, because so many prisoners had died – Hermione knew no dread, no fear. The Phlegathon Barrier itself still made her shiver, but she'd become much better at looking the other way. When the banshee gave the signal, Hermione walked rather than ran, making her way easily to the bent-over lamppost that had served as a kind of marker for her and Remus.

However, when she reached her place, it was Firenze she saw waiting for her instead. He lifted his heavy head to gaze at her, with a kind of deliberate grace that slowed her steps and quickened her heart.

Remus had looked so old the last few times she'd visited – so thin, so tired –

"Where's Remus?" she said, and her voice was thin to her own ears.

"He will be with us shortly," Firenze replied. Ignoring Hermione's sigh of relief, he continued, "He has work, as do we all, now."

"I know they're awful to you," Hermione said. She had little idea how to comfort a centaur, assuming such creatures even needed comfort, so she repeated things she'd said to Remus before in the faint hope Firenze would take them the same way. "You'd think locking you up would be bad enough – giving you labor as well is so cruel, and petty, and useless."

Firenze's large, glassy eyes stared at her, unblinking. "You have changed form."

Hermione was stopped short by that one. Awkwardly, she smoothed her hands across her robes. "I, uh, gained a little weight –"

"I do not speak of such insignificance," Firenze said, with that centaurian arrogance she'd always found so annoying. "As the feeble ages of man pass, even the stars alter their harmonies. The constellations change, as do the destinies they tell."

Two years since they destroyed Hogwarts, Hermione thought, and still I'm trapped in Divination class. "That's very interesting," she said, without bothering to put much emotion into it. "Do you think Remus will be, er, very much longer?"

"They are near," Firenze said. He rose, great hooves thumping against the ground. "Lupin and I shall not approach for several minutes."

"Several minutes? What –" But Firenze was already gone. Hermione straightened up, frowning slightly at the prospect of spending so much of this one hour of visiting time all by herself. Maybe Remus didn't find her visits as life-sustaining as she'd thought.

But almost immediately, across the Phlegathon Barrier, she could make out a shape – a man, his form taking shape and color through the evening shade and the dull red mist –

Hermione felt it as pain first, physical shock that hammered her brain and gut and spine. When she gasped, the air was so sharp and dry that it cut into her throat. She did not trust herself, not even the ground beneath her feet, or her own voice as she whispered, "Ron?"

"Hermione." Ron's voice. Ron's face, smiling at her in dazed wonder. Ron's red hair, brilliant even in the dark. "It's you, it's really you, I knew Lupin wouldn't lie about something like that, but I couldn't believe it."

"Ron! Oh, God, Ron!" Hermione staggered two steps toward the Phlegathon Barrier before Ron's shout stopped her; she wavered drunkenly at the edge, almost not caring if she fell within. Her life could end, right at this moment, and she would never know any greater joy. Ron was alive. Alive, and only a few feet away, and yet too far to touch. "You're here. You're here."

Ron was laughing, and he was crying, just as she knew she was too. Never had she wanted to embrace him, or anyone, so desperately – and yet, somehow, Hermione thought, just seeing him completed her joy. She stumbled backwards, falling to the ground almost without noticing it; her laughter and her sobbing made her brace one arm against the ground for support. She could see Ron on his hands and knees across from her, and she had no idea whether he'd fallen as well, or whether he had simply knelt down to be nearer to her.

As soon as she could manage to breathe, Hermione gasped out, "I thought you were dead."

"I know," Ron said. He looked grave – an odd expression, on his face – and for the first time she recognized that he, too, was two years older. "I'm so sorry, Hermione. I hated it, you'll never know how much. But I had to stay with – our best friend."

This time the blow was more diffuse, but even more profound. Hermione dug her fingers into the cracks of earth among the broken pavement, trying to concentrate on the feel of it, to know that all this was real. She glanced around at the other visitors and prisoners; though none were very close, even the faintest whisper of the name they couldn't say would carry like a scream.

"Ron – oh, Ron –" Hermione lay her head on her arms, unable to stop sobbing. Her head was swirling, her body shaking, as though she'd had too much mead. I am drunk, she thought. I'm drunk on this moment. Ron's alive. Harry's alive. This is like a dream; this is better than dreams.

"Our best friend is – he's alive too?"

"Yeah," Ron said. He grinned that beautiful lopsided grin; how had she lived two years without seeing that? "For a long time, he wasn't – well, I guess you'd say he wasn't himself."

"That could mean a lot of different things," Hermione said, forcing herself to focus despite her trembling and confusion.

"Remember how he said You-Know-Who was before that whole ceremony-whatchacallit in the forest?"

Hermione remembered the story of a small, creeping thing, not entirely human. "Oh, God."

"The Battle of Samhain didn't go easy on anybody," Ron replied. "But that's over now. Soon, real soon, our best friend will have his strength back. And then, Hermione – the whole world's going to change."

He was so confident, so sure. That was just how she remembered him, but it seemed so unreal to her now. "But, Ron – they caught you, you're in Tartrosgate –"

Ron shook his head, still grinning. "They didn't lay a finger on me. I sneaked in."

"Ron!"

He rolled his eyes and grinned. "See, I told you all that sneaking around Hogwarts would do us some good eventually."

"You're mad," Hermione said, laughing despite herself. "You went into Tartrosgate -- on purpose? How? Why?"

"'How' wasn't hard," Ron said earnestly. "They don't try nearly so hard to stop people from getting in. 'Why' is to help the people in here discover a way to get out. We sent Firenze in first to get ready; I'm here to help with the big night itself. With our best friend coming back so soon – you know, he's going to need more help than just me."

Hermione put her head down on the ground for just a moment, trying to regain some sense of steadiness. This is real, she thought. All of this, everything that's happening, Ron, all of it – it's real.

"Hermione?" Ron was trying his best to meet her eyes, though her position made it difficult. He craned his neck and said, "I'm so sorry I couldn't come to you before. It wasn't ever because I didn't want to – you know that, right?"

"I do," she said. If Ron had returned to her after two months, maybe three, she would have been furious at his absence. Now, whatever indignation she might ever have felt was drowned in relief and joy. "I missed you so much. I didn't have anything left to fight for or anybody left to talk to – sometimes – there were days –" But even as Hermione looked into Ron's worried face, she realized that she didn't want to tell him any of it: None of the privation, none of the loneliness, none of the days she'd spent paralyzed by grief. Compared to this moment, this new reality, none of that mattered.

"Maybe this isn't the best time to bring it up," Ron said, hesitating, "but I can't wait any longer to tell you. Hermione – I still love you. Never stopped. I know it's been a long time –"

"I love you too," Hermione whispered. "I never loved anyone else, Ron. Never."

Even as Ron smiled at her, she felt the cold grasp of Severus Snape closing around her, as though he had appeared to embrace her from behind. Hermione put her hand to her mouth to hide her own dismay.
Quickly, she said, "Does Lord Vold – does You-Know-Who know where, um, our best friend is?"

"I should hope to hell not. Don't think he even knows our best friend's alive. If he did, the Death Eaters wouldn't just be parading around all proud of themselves, would they?"

"They may be doing more than that," Hermione said. When was the ceremony to perform the spell? Snape had mentioned it last night, and she'd been so lost in depression that she'd paid his words no mind. "When are you leaving this place?"

"Soon," Ron said. "We'll keep you posted, and then, see, when we go, you can come with us." He took a deep breath. "And we won't have any stupid barrier between us then."

His longing was palpable, making her shiver as surely as his touch would have done. But once again, Snape's memory obscured her sight, dimming Ron and everything else as she remembered the many nights she'd spent in his bed. Ron would find out the truth – but he'd find out the whole truth – but Ron was such a hothead, sometimes --

"Hope you two have had a nice chat," Remus said, stepping out of the distant dark somewhat sheepishly. Firenze, completely unabashed, followed behind. "Sorry to intrude, Hermione."

"It's all right," she said, wiping again at her cheeks. "I understand why you never told me what was going on. I could never have hidden this for long." She also realized why they were telling her now – the break from Tartrosgate must be planned for only the very next few days. "Is there anything you need from me?"

"Not yet." It was Ron who answered her, his eyes fixed on her as though nothing else existed. "Come back as soon as you can, okay? Tomorrow, if you can swing it."

She saw the next questions before Ron could put voice to them, saw the uncertainty and dread in Remus' expression. Ron was going to ask where she lived, how she was getting by, and the answer to that question was going to kill him. And, Hermione knew, it was inevitable.

"I'll be here tomorrow night if I can be," she promised. "In the meantime – I guess – Remus can fill you in." She looked at Remus, hating the task she gave him but knowing there was no other way.

Remus gave her a look she couldn't fully interpret, but Hermione knew he would tell Ron the truth – the entire truth – if that was what she really wanted. And she knew that it was what she wanted; as horrible as it would be to say those words to Ron – "I am Snape's lover" – it would be worse to actually have held him, touched him, kissed him, before she had to lose him again. If Ron couldn't handle the truth, she was better off knowing that right away.

As slightly as she could manage, Hermione nodded. Remus quickly said, "I can get Ron caught up, certainly."

Brave man. She smiled at him gratefully, hoping there would someday be a way in which she could possibly return the favor. "I'll come back tomorrow. I mean – I'll try. I'll try my very best."

"Then you'll be here," Ron said, his belief unquestioning and pure. For a few moments, Hermione stopped torturing herself with doubts, stopped thinking about the future, and just looked at Ron's face. She had almost forgotten that this was what joy felt like.

**

That night, in her bedroom, Hermione was shaking so hard that she had trouble removing her clothes.

Any moment, Snape would enter the room, expecting to make love to her. Any moment, she would have to go to bed with him, knowing that Ron was alive. Even when she'd thought Ron dead, what happened in this bed had felt like a betrayal. But now that she knew Ron was only a few miles away, no doubt thinking of her –

Would Remus already have told him?

I can't think of that now, she told herself. I mustn't. If I do, I'll get upset, and for all our sakes, I can't show that I'm upset. Just for a few more nights. Maybe just for tonight.

When Snape did come to her, pulling back the covers to lower himself atop her, she found it surprisingly easy to embrace him, kiss him warmly, even to smile. Somehow it was all right, perhaps because she knew it was probably the last time.

**

XII.

 

As always, Severus disliked secrets when they were not his own.

Lord Voldemort's half-shadowed comments two days before continued to haunt Severus' thoughts; even as he went through his various tasks and errands, he kept turning what the Dark Lord had said this way and that, weighing meanings, judging possibilities.

The most obvious interpretation had occurred to him first, but he rejected that instantly as impossible. No, his task was to think of what was less obvious, to find what was hidden and make it known.

He had yet another ghastly function at Malfoy Manor, a dinner party, to endure that night. Hermione had pleaded a headache; Severus did not believe her, but he remembered the animosity between her and Draco Malfoy well enough from Hogwarts and did not blame her for avoiding a reunion. She walked him to the door and even kissed him farewell in the late-afternoon sunlight, which distracted him from his considerations until well into his trip to the Malfoys. But he returned his attention to the problem – what had Voldemort meant? Who was it that he sought with the locator spell? — thereafter, mulling on it through cocktails, salad and soup, using it to blot out the noxious presence of Pansy Parkinson on his left.

But then, just as he took his first bite of the roast duck, it hit him: Perhaps the impossible was actually possible. What if –

What if Harry Potter were alive?

Severus knew the official version of the Battle of Samhain as well as if he were one of the schoolchildren now being forced to memorize it by rote: Voldemort's resounding triumph, the burning of Hogwarts, the triumphant glow of the Dark Mark in the night. He knew the unofficial versions as well, from whispers in alleyways and from his own experience: the executions of the members of the Order of the Phoenix, the torture of family members supposedly for information but really only for revenge. The details varied – sometimes, even in Severus' own memory, it was hard to accept precisely how it had all gone – but they all had one fact in common. On that long-ago October night, Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort had faced each other in battle, and Harry Potter had died. Severus had never been given the slightest reason to doubt that one fatal truth, until two nights ago.

The Dark Lord had spoken of a cause rising and falling on the life of just one man. He had spent considerable money on Severus' project and dedicated resources to the perfection of a potion to empower a locator spell accurate beyond all others in existence. He was eager to use the spell at its first opportunity upon an enemy he was unwilling to directly name.

Dumbledore, Severus thought, trying to dissuade himself. Or another, perhaps – Alastor Moody, or even Arthur Weasley. People might rally around any of them –

But if the cause rose and fell on just one person's life, that person could not be anyone but Harry Potter.

"Severus?" Narcissa Malfoy was giving him a piercing look. "Is the duck not to your liking?"

He stared across the enormous ebony dining table, realizing for the first time that he'd been utterly still, fork poised in midair, not even chewing for at least a solid minute. Narcissa looked offended. Lucius looked concerned. That twit Draco was obviously trying not to laugh.

"Forgive me," Severus said. "Lucius will have told you about the ceremony tomorrow night?" She nodded, already bored; Draco narrowed his eyes, hoping for more information, which Severus had no intention of supplying. "I have forgotten a very important detail in the preparation of the necessary potion. It will be easy enough to fix, but I must leave immediately if all is to be in order at the appropriate time."

Nobody seemed terribly disappointed to see him go. Lucius, the most polite, saw him to the door. "Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to go by Floo?" he asked smoothly.

"It's too blasted hot for that," Severus said, forgetting his aplomb for a moment; in truth, he didn't want any record of his movements available to Voldemort of any of his other followers. He quickly forced a smile, covering the slip. "Summertime does make Floo inconvenient."

"It's true, it's true." Lucius smiled and clapped Severus on the shoulder. "Until tomorrow night, then."

Did Lucius know? Had Voldemort trusted him with the information? Severus studied Lucius' steely eyes, but he could not tell. "Tomorrow evening," he said, and hurried out into the twilight.

His footsteps were quick the entire way home, as he attempted to process this insight. It had stunned him with the kind of force that, Severus thought, could only come from truth. He thought: Potter is alive. If Potter is alive, then he retains the ability to do what no one else can do – to kill Lord Voldemort.

Severus never paused to ask himself if he still wanted Voldemort dead. That was not a question. That was a fact, as sure and as constant as any of the chemical properties in his laboratory.

But what was he now to do? He couldn't disguise the existence of the potion from Voldemort, not after having presented it so boldly. Voldemort had a sample now, and even if Severus destroyed all his work, his papers and notes, there were potions masters who could work backwards from the final product and re-create the formula. For the first time, Severus found himself missing the meetings of the Order of the Phoenix. Smug and self-righteous as he had found most of its members, they would have provided able and immediate assistance.

There were no survivors of the Order, save for that wretch Remus Lupin, now getting his comeuppance in Tartrosgate.

Severus considered that thought more carefully as he drew closer to home. Lupin. Alive.

He had come to dislike Remus Lupin heartily within the first year of their acquaintance and had been given no reason to change his opinion in the quarter-century since. But Severus did not deny that Lupin was intelligent, and he had a way of knowing far more than he should. Perhaps neither of them was in a position to be choosy about allies any longer.

But to get to Lupin, he would need to go to Tartrosgate, and to convince Lupin to see him. To do that, he would need Hermione's help. And he had no doubt that, if there was a hint that Harry Potter might be alive, Hermione would help.

Do not be cruel to her, Severus thought. Do not torment her with false hope.

But he didn't think it was false, not any longer.

Severus went into the house quickly, too fast for Binks to even make her way to the door and greet him. Even as he opened his mouth to call for Hermione, he heard odd sounds – the clink of breaking glass, the rustle of papers being crumpled up and torn. Frowning, he made his way toward the sound. Toward his workshop.

The door was cracked open. Through that one sliver, Severus could see the fireplace, roaring with flames – and one of his notebooks being tossed in to burn.

He flung open the door to see Hermione, who dropped the mortal and pestle in her hands and stared at him, slack-jawed. His workshop was a disaster; the surviving papers were strewn everywhere, and every flask had been shattered into shining, irregular fragments.

Hermione gaped at him, then said, as if stupefied, "I didn't expect you."

"I imagine not," Severus said. His wand was already in his hand, though he did not remember grabbing it. "Petrificus!"

She shrieked as the bands of immobility closed around her, holding her still. Severus stalked up to her and grabbed a fistful of her bushy hair, making her whimper. He did not care if she whimpered. He growled, "Explain yourself."

Despite her evident terror, Hermione answered in an even voice. "I didn't want Voldemort to have the spell or the potion. So I was destroying what I could."

"You are too late," he said. "I've given enough to Voldemort already. He can recreate everything you've destroyed. He is going to perform the ceremony tomorrow night." Tell her now? Yes, now, and if the shock hurt her, so much the better. She did not deserve the knowledge, but she deserved the pain. "He is going to use it to find Harry Potter. The very much alive Harry Potter."

Hermione's eyes went wide – but, he realized, she was not shocked, not the way he had meant for her to be. "You know," she whispered. "You've always known. And you let me work on a potion that would help kill him."

He could not correct her. He was still attempting to absorb the fact that she'd known the truth – for how long? As long as Remus Lupin had allowed her to know, most likely. And she had revealed nothing. She had not trusted him with the truth.

Then another suspicion struck him, this colder and harder than the other. "You were never here for work, were you? I thought you might be a spy, before, but I came to trust you. No doubt my greatest mistake." All those nights she'd lain in his bed, made love to his body, even wept on his shoulder – all lies. Lies he'd fallen for like any other lonely, middle-aged fool.

"I don't think I could ever be your greatest mistake, Snape." Hermione's eyes were glowing with a passion more genuine than he'd ever seen before. "I think that's far too long a list for me to ever be at the top, don't you?"

Severus slapped her before he could stop himself, hard enough that her head whipped back and her cheek turned scarlet. In a moment of horror, he remembered his father's hand, as broad and strong as his own, and his mother's face red with the imprint of a palm.

Her voice was clotted with tears when she spoke again. "You can beat me up if you want to. You can keep helping Lord Voldemort if you want to. But you won't win."

What side did she think he was on? She seemed quite sure that he wasn't on hers. Severus could imagine them now – Remus Lupin, Harry Potter, Hermione and God only knew who else. They had reformed their circle, resumed their struggle, and not one of them had considered him worth informing. All those years he'd sacrificed for the Order, and what repayment did he have? Nothing. Less than nothing.

What side did he think he was on? Severus was no longer sure. He did not want to think about the world that might yet be; he wanted to know his place in the world they'd been given.

Softly, smoothly, he murmured, "Was I the first man to know you as a whore?" Her face flushed, but she didn't answer. "I suppose you laughed at me, for believing in your affection. I've heard such laughter before. But I must warn you, Hermione – I've always had my revenge."

She laughed in his face. "What else can you do to me? You've struck me, tied me up and used my body – against my will, I assure you." Such contempt. Such coldness. That was all their nights together had ever meant. "There's nothing left for you to do but kill me, and if I hadn't been ready to face that, I'd never have endured you to begin with."

"Didn't Dumbledore teach you anything?" Severus sneered. "There are worse fates than death." That, at last, made her blanch, and for a moment Severus' battered pride mended itself. "Lord Voldemort should know what I know, don't you think?"

Her eyes widened with fear, and Severus could only think how good it felt to be feared again. Fear was like respect, perhaps sweeter because it was even more powerful. His reservations and questions were burning like his notebooks in the fire, all careful method and reflection gone in a blaze of heat. Severus was beyond anything but the desire for revenge.

"Yes," he said slowly. "I believe it is far past time the Dark Lord knew everything."

**

Chapter Text

XIII.

 

Snape wouldn't tell Voldemort. He wouldn't.

The thought flashed through Hermione's mind as though it were a fact – true, and tested, and sure. She knew that part of her wanted to believe that, despite everything.

However, the rest of her – her body frozen painfully in place by a spell, her face stinging from the blows he'd delivered – knew better. Maybe, when she was younger, she could have believed that the worst wasn't upon them. But she had far too deep an acquaintance with the worst-case scenario by now.

Snape was backing away from her, his face twisted into something halfway between a grimace and a sneer. Hermione knew Death Eater tactics enough to realize that he wasn't supposed to murder her; that honor would rightfully be reserved for Lord Voldemort himself.

She gasped. Voldemort could read minds, and if he read her mind – maybe he already knew about Harry, but not about Ron, or Firenze, or the break from Tartrosgate. Whatever else happened, Hermione could not bear the thought that her last act might be to betray her friends.

Well, she thought, struggling against the tears welling in her eyes – there's only way to prevent Voldemort from getting to you.

Good thing Snape never followed Death Eater tactics exactly.

"If I'm going to die," she said, coldly as she could manage with her voice shaking, "then I might as well tell you what I really think of you. Haven't anything else to lose, have I?"

"You do not want the answer to that question," Snape growled. His hands clenched the back of a chair, his knuckles already white.

"I wasn't a spy, not at first," she said. Why lie, when the truth would do the work for her? "I couldn't bring myself to go to bed with you, not for secrets, not to stop the potion, not for anything."

"You are a liar. You are a spy." His face was wild now, his eyes glittering feverishly in the light of his burning papers. Was he angry enough to kill her? Not yet, Hermione thought desperately, not yet.

But one more push would do it.

"Once I'd forced myself to bear it, I thought of anyone else in bed, anything else – anything so that I didn't have to think about the fact that you were inside me. I hated it. I hated YOU."

"Silence!" Snape stalked toward her, his wand again at the ready. Avada Kedavra, Hermione thought in mingled relief and terror. One flash of green, and it will all be over, all over, all over --

BAM!

Hermione stood still, not breathing. She realized three things: She was still alive, the light that had flashed was blue instead of green, and Snape – instead of looking outraged – was wavering on his feet, then slumping, slowly, to the ground.

Behind Snape stood Binks, blinking her big eyes, wringing her tea-cozy garment in her hands.

"Binks?" Hermione whispered. "You – you saved me?"

"Binks listens to mistress of the house, same as master," the house-elf said. She then waved her little hands, and Hermione felt the bonds of the paralyzing spell fade, then vanish.

She sank to her knees, ignoring Snape's limp form on the floor. "You mean – you're loyal to the heads of the household, but when those loyalties are divided, you can choose sides? And you chose to help me?"

Binks looked more fretful than moved, but she finally said, "Mistress is always nice to Binks. And – and Mistress is Harry Potter's friend."

Hermione grabbed the house-elf and hugged her tightly. Naturally, she didn't hug Hermione back; that wasn't how house-elves were, was it? But it just went to show that a little bit of decency could do miracles – she couldn't WAIT to tell Ron –

"Ron!" she gasped. "Oh, Binks, I have to go. I have to go right away. I – I won't be back – " Quickly, she pulled off one of her shoes, then her sock, and held the sock out to the house-elf. "You needn't take it if you don't want to. But I think you better had, before he wakes up. Come with me, if you like. We could use you."

Nodding wearily, Binks took the sock and trudged toward the door. Hermione pulled her shoe back on, mentally calculating the time it would take her to grab her things upstairs – not long, but not worth it, and besides, she didn't need the photos any longer; she'd have the real thing again, and soon.

As she got to her feet, Hermione glanced down again at Snape, still prostrate on the floor. His face was free of anger or outraged pride; he looked precisely as he did when he was asleep. They'd slept together – actually slept – so few nights; for all her still-simmering anger, Hermione knew that some of what she'd shouted at him moments before had been a lie.

The revulsion she'd felt as she'd spoken had been not for Snape himself, but for the fact that, by the end, she had hated him no longer.

Then she remembered Harry, and the hatred seized her again, hotter than before. Snape had known Harry was alive, he had KNOWN there was hope, but he'd kept working for Voldemort anyway, and he'd let Hermione help create a potion that might kill Harry for real this time. She bit her lip and somehow restrained herself from kicking Snape's inert body.

Binks' spell would have Stunned him deeply, but Snape would inevitably awaken, and upon awakening, report them. Hermione had enough of a head for tactics to know that the logical thing to do was kill him. She had no intention of using an Unforgivable Curse, but during the war she'd learned that knives worked perfectly well.

For some reason, she found herself thinking of "Twelfth Night," of the beautiful actress in her disguise. Why that memory now?

Hermione did not know, and did not care. But she left Snape unharmed as she hurried away, pausing only to grab a single flagon – the potion for her counter-spell.

She was Harry's only chance.

**

After curfew, while the Dementors patrolled, Voldemort's London took on an eerie cast, darker than the night sky above it.

Hermione ran as quickly as she could, Binks tripping along nimbly at her side, trying hard not to look into any of the many shadows that surrounded them. If only they hadn't dismantled the Muggle power plants; if only Apparating weren't so bloody loud! "My kingdom – for a broomstick!" she gasped, joking to herself. Binks paid her no mind.

And that conjured up memories of Snape reading Shakespeare, his voice soft as they sat together in front of the fire. Would her mind ever be free of him?

Time to worry about that, she decided, when I find out if I'm going to live long enough to remember any of this.

She forced herself to slow down as she approached Tartrosgate; a running woman would attract more attention than one walking, and her shoes made a terrible racket against the pavement, and oh, God, her side was hurting. Hermione had been exhausted, from sleeplessness and worry, even before she began wrecking Snape's workshop. Now she felt weak and wrung-out, but there was no time for it. Later. She would have all the time in the world to rest later, one way or another.

This wasn't a visiting night at Tartrosgate; the ragged crowds that Hermione was used to seeing there were absent, as was the banshee. In fact, she could see no guards at all – only the Phlegathon Barrier kept the prisoners in, but then, that was all that had ever been necessary. She could see it vividly, a ribbon of liquid fire, lacing its way around the camp, its red-gold light the only illumination for perhaps a mile around.

"Come on, Binks," Hermione murmured, more to shore up her own confidence. They made their way closer and closer, stepping off the pavement into the soft grasses around Tartrosgate. This had been a park, once; still standing were many trees and hedges behind which Dementors could easily be hiding. But if they'd seen her, Hermione rationalized, surely they would have stopped her by now. As she reached the very brink of Tartrosgate, she dropped to her knees, and even tiny Binks crouched low. To her dismay, she realized that, on a non-visiting night, none of the prisoners came very close to the Phlegathon Barrier. Understandable, she thought, but damned inconvenient. What magic spell could get their attention without alerting the guards?

Oh, blast magic, she thought, picking up a rock and chucking it into Tartrosgate as hard as she could.

The first three rocks landed soundlessly, probably in the grass, but the fourth rock thwacked satisfyingly against some sort of tree or pole. Sure enough, a few moments later she heard motion, then saw Firenze stepping closer to the barrier. "Hermione," he said, unsurprised. "You are expected."

"Right, thanks, nice to see you too," Hermione said, thumping her fingers nervously against the ground. "We've got trouble. Snape knows about me – that I'm a spy, I mean – and Voldemort knows about Harry, and they're going to use the locator spell to go after Harry soon. I think it was to be tomorrow night, but now that I've gotten away – Firenze, it could be any time, any hour now –"

For once, thankfully, the centaur's attention was focused on the here and now. "We must act to protect Harry Potter, and quickly."

"My point exactly," Hermione said. "But how?"

"We will leave immediately," Firenze said, as majestically as though he could simply step over the Phlegathon Barrier at will. "The planned escape will take place tonight, as soon as all can be alerted. Wait here." He vanished back into the darkness, leaving her no more enlightened and not significantly less scared.

 

"That wasn't a big help, wasn't it?" Hermione said to Binks, who had to be terrified. Of course, the house-elf looked more annoyed than terrified, with Hermione's sock pulled onto her head as a kind of stocking cap, but Hermione was certain that was just Binks' way of trying to be brave. "I expect we'll know the signal when we see it."

When that signal came, Hermione knew that she would do the only thing she could do: Go to Ron and Remus and help them however she could, the better to get the counter-spell and potion to Harry. Hermione put her hand over the small bag in which she held the precious flagon. Ron would be so proud of her, when she told him about this.

Ron. Memory lanced through her, an icicle through her gut. By now, Remus would have told Ron everything about her and Snape. Ron knew.

Stupid, she thought, to be worrying about that at a time like this. Ron's focused on this escape, and I should be too. I will be. I am.

But afterward –

She heard murmurs and rustling within Tartrosgate, and began to make out shapes within the prison: Dozens of people, she thought – no, maybe even a hundred. Instinctively, she crept backward, tugging Binks with her, as the murmuring turned into a low chant:

"Phlegathon phorasus leviosa – Phlegathon phorasus leviosa –"

To Hermione's horror, it looked as though the Phlegathon Barrier was actually growing – filling up its ditch, certain to overflow at any moment. Binks squeaked in dismay and began clambering up the nearby tree. Hermione was about to join her when she realized that the sluggish river of fire wasn't swelling – it was rising. Literally rising.

Floating.

The Phlegathon Barrier began to lift slowly in midair, now a glowing hoop that levitated above the earth, higher and higher every moment. Hermione watched, aghast and amazed, to see the liquid fire still flowing within the energies that now surrounded it.

Oh, God, she realized. The guards, the Dementors – they'll all be able to see this, any moment now.

"Go!" a voice shouted, and the prisoners of Tartrosgate ran for freedom.

Ragged crowds stumbled into the now-empty ditch, jumped over it, helped toss each other across. Hermione saw Firenze take a mighty leap with at least four people on his back; when he landed and kept them all on, he immediately started galloping toward the west. Trying very hard not to look at the hoop of liquid fire boiling overhead, Hermione ran forward and helped a few of the weaker prisoners – ex-prisoners – climb out of the ditch. But no matter how bony they were, how shaky on their feet, each and every one kept going, moving as quickly as they could after Firenze.

She put her hand back in the ditch to pull someone else out without looking to see who, but amid the din, she heard a soft laugh. "You were always just in time for the trouble, weren't you?"

"Remus?" Before Hermione realized it, she was hugging him, feeling the painful jut of his ribs against her body. "That spell – the Phlegathon Barrier won't stay up for long –"

"More reason to run -- we DON'T want to be there when it comes down!" Remus said, taking off as well. Hermione began running after him, her earlier exhaustion forgotten.

"Where are we going?" she called after Remus. For somebody who had clearly been starving, he was surprisingly fast. She'd have to ask him if that was the lycanthropy. "We're not getting away on foot!"

Remus didn't look backward, but he answered her, "We're going to a Convergence point." Hermione remembered those from her studies; they were places where lines of magical power crossed, amplifying the power of spells. "We should be able to conduct a mass Apparition there."

Mass Apparitions were extraordinarily dangerous, and Hermione opened her mouth to say so – then realized that they were running away from a ring of burning fire that was about to collapse, through a forest no doubt about to be filled with Dementors, and compared to all that a Mass Apparition was positively safe.

A scream echoed in the woods, and Hermione saw a red bolt, no doubt from a prison guard's wand. She was certain she saw a shape fall, but nobody stopped running. No time for any more rescues, no time for even a moment's delay.

What if it was Ron? Hermione thought. No, no, I won't think of it. I won't look for him.

But she did grab her wand, and the next time she saw red bolts lance through the air, she pointed in that general direction and cried, "Repulsio!" A screech like a thousand crows split the air, raising the hair on her head and making many of the escapees scream – but Hermione knew that at least one fewer Dementor was after them.

Others were casting defensive spells as well, but few and far between – it was hard to do while running, in the dark, and with so many people who might trip or stumble and get in the way. More Dementors would be coming, soon. How far, Hermione thought in panic, is this bloody convergence point? I'm not going to make it to Salisbury Hill.

Then she heard Lupin cry out, "Left! Everyone, bear left! You'll sense it soon!"

Behind her, she felt a flare of heat, then an enormous crash that shook the earth and made the sky the brilliant orange of sunrise for a moment. Hermione realized that the Phlegathon Barrier had crashed, and whatever precious secrecy they still had was now gone.

They ran through what had been a Muggle banking district; great stone columns lined the edifices of the buildings, and the enormous windows had almost all their panes cracked or missing. Hermione saw Firenze standing shock still, his riders – all of them old or frail – clinging to him weakly as he remained motionless. She realized immediately that his magic would stand against the Dementors for the critical moments they'd need to prepare. Sure enough, seconds later, she heard him behind her shouting a Stunning Spell.

The crows shrieked again, the noise of it even more terrible echoing against stone. Firenze cried, "They cannot find us for ten minutes. After that, I can do no more."

Hermione felt it as warmth first, so tangible that she turned her head, looking for the fire. Then she realized that it was more than warmth – it was strength, and surety, and power, a shot of good whiskey, a compass needle pointing north. Everything that was good and right and whole -- "What is this place?" she whispered.

"One of the most powerful convergence points in Britain," Remus said, walking into a small courtyard in what, according to the battered plaque on the wall, had been the Bank of China. He held his hands out over an unimpressive-looking slab of rock beneath a metal grate. "London Stone. The Muggles built around it and forgot it entirely. Fortunately for us, Voldemort hasn't bothered to capitalize on its potential. But we will."

He began working with some of the other witches and wizards, each of them discussing incantations and parameters. Hermione longed to poke her nose in and hear all the details – fascinating magic, really – but she knew she'd only be in the way. Instead she tugged at the neck of her robes, damp with sweat from her run in the hot summer night. I wonder, she thought as she wandered to the edge of the courtyard, if we're going someplace cool? Please, let Harry be hiding in Norway. Or Switzerland. I hear Iceland's nice.

"Hermione?"

She stopped, stood perfectly still, not even turning around. In a tiny voice, she said, "Ron?"

And then his arms were around her, and his mouth was on hers, and tears were in her eyes. She couldn't hold him close enough, or kiss him hard enough. It was Ron, her Ron, alive and well and still loving her, despite all the years, despite Snape, despite Voldemort, and to hell with them all. Nothing else mattered, nobody else, just this moment, when Hermione was finally kissing Ron again.

When their mouths parted, Ron whispered, "I've waited too long for that."

"Oh, God, me too. I love you, Ron." Their lips were still just inches apart, and she tilted her face up for another kiss, but he took her face in his hands and looked serious.

"I love you too," he said. "You should know – nothing could change that, not ever. What happened with – Snape –" It hurt him to say it, Hermione saw, and that knowledge cut her deeply – not because of Ron, but for him. "You shouldn't have been scared to tell me, okay? I understand. I hate it, but you can't have thought – Hermione, I'd never blame you for that, not for being brave and doing what you thought you had to do."

She could only stare at him. "I'm glad you understand – but –"

"But what?"

The only way to say it was to blurt it out: "You don't sound much like the boy I used to know."

"I don't know if I am much like him," Ron admitted. "The last couple of years, I've found out – sometimes you have to make hard choices. Sometimes hard choices are all you've got left."

Hermione rested her head against Ron's chest, comforting him for whatever past pain he was remembering. She'd envisioned him tending to Harry all this time, but Ron's life had taken as many strange paths as her own. She had no idea what he'd been through – no idea who he was, now. But she was willing to find out. "I can't believe I spent all that time worrying about whether you'd be mad."

Ron's hands tightened against her back. "I'm mad as hell. But not at you – at Snape, that lousy, cowardly, vicious –"

"Cowardly, Mr. Weasley?"

Hermione spun around, gasping in horror just as Ron cursed under his breath. Walking up the steps of the bank was Snape, clad in black robes, a sardonic sneer on his face. Snape said coolly, "I hardly think a coward would make his appearance here and now, do you?"

He stepped closer, his eyes boring into Hermione's, as he added, "And yet, here I am."

**

XIV.

 

They stared at him, two perfect masks of complete terror, and Severus allowed himself to relish the sight of it. If he had to look at them – Hermione in Ron Weasley's arms, the two of them celebrating her escape from him – Severus preferred to look at them scared out of their juvenile wits.

It was Ron who spoke first. "How did you find us?"

"Only you, Mr. Weasley, could ask that question of someone who has spent the past several months perfecting a potion to empower a locator spell." Severus raised one eyebrow. Given the evidence, he ought to have known that Hermione wasn't attracted to intelligence. The boy made a move for his wand, but Severus had his ready and held it aloft. "This is not the time nor the place for a duel, boy."

"What do you want?" Hermione said. She, at least, had regained her composure.

What did he want? Severus knew he could only discover the truth by asking one person – who was not standing before him. He allowed every bit of contempt to resound in his voice as he said, "Let me speak to Remus Lupin."

They stood still for a moment; then Hermione turned and said, calmly, "Ron, go get Remus."

"Hermione, no! What if Snape calls out a pack of Dementors?"

"If he were going to do that, he would have done it before we ever saw him," Hermione said, displaying the first evidence Severus had had all night that her judgment hadn't entirely deserted her. "It's – Ron, I think it's all right. Just get Remus, quickly."

Ron looked as though he would rather tackle Severus, an eventuality for which Severus was fully prepared – but he swore under his breath and then ran back into the ragged crowd. Were these all prisoners of Tartrosgate? Severus had never quite realized just how many there were.

"Tell me the truth – when did you know about Harry?" Hermione said. Her careful control, her drawn face, and her wounded eyes were all so familiar. Severus tried to place the memory, then realized he was recalling the day she'd come to him and asked for work. Her slim hand placing her c.v. in his – the image stung.

"Tonight," Severus replied. "I only realized tonight. Something the Dark Lord said yesterday led me to consider the facts in a different way, and then I hit upon the solution." He cocked his head. "When did you realize that I didn't always know about Harry?"

"Just now. When you didn't show up with a pack of Dementors." Hermione did not apologize for her mistake. Just as well, Severus decided; if apologies began between the two of them, he suspected they would go on for far too long. As it was, he could see the faint bruises on her cheek that his hand had left, and he did not need to hear either excuses for her sins or blame for his own. "Why did you threaten to tell Voldemort, before?"

The painful truth slipped slowly from Severus, but he forced his way through it. "Because I was considering telling him."

A man's voice said, "That surprises me more than anything else, really." Severus blinked; it was difficult to recognize this bony wraith as Remus Lupin. No trace of the boy he'd been remained, save for the wry curve of his smile. "Severus, I've considered you an ally at times, written you off as a traitor at others, but I always thought you knew your own mind."

"For the first time in your life, you have given me too much credit," Severus replied, studiously focusing on Remus, the better to ignore Ron gathering Hermione in his arms again. "I take it that this is why no one from the Order ever contacted me about Harry Potter."

Remus folded his arms. "Nobody in the Order ever attended Voldemort's celebration banquets after Dumbledore's death."

"Of course I kept myself alive!" Severus snapped. "Should I have died for a cause I thought was already dead?"

"That's arguable," Remus said. "But – you're here, and you didn't come with guards, so I take it that means you came to help. Good. I can use it."

Ron's mouth gaped open. "Professor Lupin – are you mad? You're not going to TRUST him?"

"Maybe he'll betray me," Remus replied, so casually as to defy belief. "But he won't have the opportunity until the rest of you are gone, and after that, I'm willing to take my chances."

"You might be," Ron said, shaking his head as he stepped forward. "But I'm not."

"Ron, no." Hermione touched Ron's shoulders, just with two fingers, but it was enough to stop him. Severus finally looked back into her face as she said, "It's all right. We can trust him."

Severus turned his head away, though he could not have said whether it was to stop seeing her or to prevent them from seeing him. Remus quickly said, "The others have the Mass Apparition almost ready. Severus and I will stay behind and Obfuscate where you went."

Hermione said, "But how will you get away?"

"We'll do our best," Remus said, which Severus suspected was Marauder for "I have no plan, and I expect fate to take care of everything for me." Typical. "Hermione, as soon as you get to Harry, perform the counter-spell."

"Immediately," Severus said. The point could not be stressed enough. "After the break from Tartrosgate, Voldemort will soon realize that Potter's forces are regrouping. He will know that I have left his service by morning, at the latest. If we are lucky, he will distrust the potion we made – but in this, we cannot afford to rely upon luck."

"Lupin!" It was Firenze whose voice rang out, and Severus blinked in surprise to see him again. The centaur did not acknowledge him; nor did Binks, who had joined the people gathering around. "This is the time!"

Remus glanced at Hermione and Severus, then tugged at Ron. "You, help me get everyone in place. A few of them are Stunned, don't know quite what's going on." Ron did not look thrilled at the idea of leaving Hermione alone with Severus, but he followed Remus.

Severus was not thrilled at being left alone with Hermione. Damn Remus and his misplaced ideas of courtesy.

"I'm sorry," Hermione blurted out. "I said horrible things to you – and I lied to you, all this time, and I didn't trust you, and, well, maybe I couldn't trust you right away, but I might have tried to find out if I could, but –"

"Stop," Severus said, more harshly than he'd intended. Forcing himself to be steady, he continued, "Hermione, I know what it is to be a spy. I am quite familiar with the – compromises – one is forced to make. There is no place, in that work, for divided loyalties. Do not apologize for doing your job well."

That should have been all there was to it. The logic was simple, pure, almost mathematical. Generally, Severus found logic comforting and familiar, but tonight it was cold.

Hermione stepped forward and gently laid her hand upon his forearm. She whispered, "Then I'm not sorry for what I did. But – Severus – I'm still sorry that it hurt you."

She'd never called him by his first name before. He hadn't realized that until this moment. That was the sort of detail that he ought to have noticed, really. "What did you use in the potion for the counter-spell?"

"Oh – oh, of course. Topaz, cinnabar, attar of roses –" She began ticking off her ingredients; unwillingly, Severus felt his old admiration for her spark anew. They were intelligently chosen, well-designed, precisely what he'd have selected himself.

When she was finished, he said only, "Well done." Hermione gave him a crooked little smile that cut him through to the quick.

"Let's go!" Remus shouted, and Hermione walked, then ran toward the group amassing atop London Stone, straight into Ron Weasley's arms. She didn't look back. Severus stood beside Remus, slightly apart from the rest. "Help me out, will you?" Remus asked, as easily as though they were still schoolboys, trying to reach books on the top shelves of the library.

Severus readied his wand. "On three," he said smoothly. One – two –

-Hermione's eyes found his, for only an instant –

Three. Lightning and thunder, and where the crowd had been, there was only silence and faint trails of smoke coming from London Stone itself. He and Remus stared at one another for an instant, then immediately began to run.

"Don't tell me," Severus gasped as they turned down a back alley. "You have no idea what happens next."

Remus said, "Actually, the underground had heard rumors of a contraband broomstick stash around here. I think it's high time we check that out, don't you?"

Severus wasn't certain that qualified as a "plan," precisely, but it was better than he'd hoped.

They found the warehouse and the broomsticks – pitiful old things, bristles broken and handles worn, nothing more recent than a Cleansweep that had seen better days. Remus beamed as though they'd stumbled into an open vault at Gringott's. "Brilliant. Now – just give me a moment."

As Remus slumped against the wall, Severus said, "You'll want us to perform Disillusionment Charms upon each other, I take it."

"I think they could see right through me," Remus said, somehow joking about his bony hands. "For your sake, though, seems like a good idea."

Don't pretend any of this is for my sake, Severus thought sourly. "Where shall we go after that? To protect Harry Potter, I suppose?"

Remus watched him quietly for a moment. "No. He's protected well enough, right now. We need to try and get to Beauxbatons, if we can. They still have a stronghold there. You, ah, don't have to worry."

Severus glared. "We're going to try to get to France on broomsticks that don't look like they could cross the room, and we needn't worry?"

"Oh, no. You can worry about that," Remus replied. "I meant – you don't have to, ah, be around her. Them. For a long while, I think."

"That doesn't matter," Severus said. "As long as she is – safe, and well – the rest does not matter."

He thought he'd said it coolly enough, but Remus, unexpectedly, smiled. "You know, Severus," he said, "for the first time in my life, I actually like you."

"Have I at last won your approval?" Severus replied, raising an eyebrow. "Then it's all been worth it."

"Sarcasm ages you faster than anything, you know," Remus confided. "Adds lines around the eyes."

"Shut up and pick a broomstick."

 

**

XV.

 

Ron's hand was warm around Hermione's as he drew her toward the castle doors. It was a rather ordinary castle, half in ruins, the sort she'd driven past on holiday as a child without a second glance. But it was inhabited now, candles and torches burning brightly in every window, illuminating the gloomy plain. The pre-dawn fog made everything seem soft, almost surreal.

"Nobody ever came out here except Muggle tourists," Ron said. "Dean remembered it from one of his mum's picture-postcards. You'd think it would be grand or at least nice, but it's not, it's all cold and wet, but the towers are brilliant, you'll have to go up and see the view."

"Later," Hermione said, trying to smile. She was exhausted, and felt strangely lulled by the fog and her own sleeplessness. They were just two people in a long column filing into the castle, all of them quiet, as solemn as though they were preparing to walk down the aisle of a cathedral. Ron gave her an uncertain look, and she realized that he was as disoriented as she was.

They went through the hall and walked into a large room, around which candles all floated. A few people who had obviously been there a while – Hermione wasn't sure, but she thought she caught a glimpse of Ernie McMillan, and that was definitely Poppy Pomfrey – smiled and nodded, greeting the newcomers.

And there, in the center of the room, on a long pallet –

"Harry!" Hermione cried out, feeling and reality returning to her in one great crush. She dropped to her knees, Ron following her, until they were both at Harry's side.

"Hermione," Harry said. His voice was deeper than she remembered, his body broader despite his evident illness. His hair had been shorn so close to his scalp that, for the first time, Hermione could see how far back the lightning scar reached; it was uglier than she'd realized. "I never thought I'd see you again."

"Likewise," Hermione managed to say, despite the swelling in her throat. She wanted to kiss him, to kiss Ron, to grab them both and hold them so tightly that nobody could ever, ever make her let them go. But she remembered her task and pulled out a vial. "I need to perform a spell, Harry. So Voldemort can't find you."

Quickly, she dampened her fingers and anointed Harry's forehead and hands; the thick scent of roses mixed with the candle-smoke, making her even more light-headed, but she kept going, chanting out the words. Harry lay there patiently, only blinking a little as the liquid trickled across his temple. At last she whispered, "There. It's done. You're safe."

All around them, people began murmuring, "Safe – safe – the Dark Lord defeated – safe –" Hermione saw them all smiling beatifically, and wondered how it was possible to simultaneously feel so comforted and so unnerved.

"About time you two got here," Harry said, taking both her hand and Ron's. He then raised his eyebrows and whispered, "It's been getting just a little, you know – HOLY around here."

That's it, Hermione realized. The people in this room – they don't just follow him. They worship him.

But Harry wasn't acting like somebody who wanted to be worshipped. He was grinning up at them, glad to see the two people who'd spent more time than anyone else putting him in his place. This, she decided, was a very good thing. "About time we got here," she agreed, squeezing his hand. "And we're not going anywhere else without you."

"Just like it used to be," Harry said, smiling fondly. But he was already drifting back into sleep.

"That's right, mate," Ron said, placing Harry's hand back on the pallet. "Like it used to be."

Hermione felt Harry's hand relax, then stood up and held the vial out to Madame Pomfrey. "The spell I just performed – do you remember it?"

"Every word, Miss Granger," Madame Pomfrey said. "Rather ingenious work, I must say."

"It'll be more effective on the castle as a whole if performed by someone who's been here a while," Hermione said. Madame Pomfrey simply nodded and took the vial with her as she headed back out the door. Everyone else seemed content to just watch Harry sleep.

Ron said, "Let's go." As they went up the steps, he muttered, "Harry's right about the whole holy thing. I mean, it's impressive and all, him returning from the dead, or the near-dead I guess, but people here, it's like they don't think of him as a human being. Even kids who were in school with us!"

"They'll calm down," Hermione says. "Once he's got his strength back, we'll get him to play Quidditch, maybe. When they see him complaining about penalty calls, they'll come back down to earth." Ron laughed and slid his arm around her shoulders, but Hermione found herself remembering Luna and all the other Neville-followers, huddled in their basement hideaway. Just the mention of Neville's name had made them come alive with hope – and delusion.

Is that what's left for us? Hermione wondered. Is that what I'll have to watch? Or what I'll become?

"Here's my room," Ron said, pushing open a door so strong and new that it had to have been spelled there. "I mean – our room, unless you –"

"Here's our room," Hermione said. She took both his hands and drew him inside as though she'd been living there for months, as though it were her home. It felt like home.

Had it been like this for them before? Hermione remembered their lovemaking as being exciting and fulfilling, but she didn't remember anything like this kind of intensity – the shivers down her spine as they kissed, or the thrill of feeling the bare skin of his back as she pulled off his shirt. She didn't remember him looking down at her naked body like that, the way his hands caressed her and moved her in the ways he wanted her to go. When they were finally together at last, entwined in bed, moving in rhythm, she realized that she was laughing and crying, both at once. Ron just kept kissing her, kept loving her, kept reminding her of everything good about being alive.

By the time the sun had risen, Ron was dozing at her side. She lay her head on the pillow next to his and breathed in the scent of him – she'd almost forgotten that, the way he smelled. One more thing that had come back to her just in time. Hermione stretched her legs, arced her feet and prepared to try to sleep, despite her excitement. It had been so long since she'd slept.

The last time she'd slept had been in Snape's bed, with him at her side.

Now, in Harry's fortress, in bed with Ron, Hermione found that she could think about Snape in a way she never had before – it was safe, now, to consider him, and who she had been when she was with him. She remembered his anger, his snobbery, his willingness to smile and be friendly with the dregs of the earth, Lucius Malfoy and Voldemort and all the rest.

She remembered "Twelfth Night," and excited conversations about potion theory, and laughing about Muggle money. She remembered leaning her head on his shoulder to cry, and feeling comforted, despite everything.

If things had happened differently, Hermione realized, I might have come to care for him. I would have. More than – more than I already did.

But they didn't happen differently, she reminded herself. They happened like this.

Hermione snuggled next to Ron, and fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

**

THE END